Friday, February 29, 2008

Dancing with a Friend

I swooped in here before all velvety and talked to you about cake without even telling why we're all abuzz with excitement! A dear old friend of mine will be on this upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars. I am already trying to figure out what to drink, what to eat, what to wear for her fabulous debut! She's a star, not a professional dancer. I feel funny about identifying her on this blog because she has a right to her privacy though certainly her name has appeared in conjunction with the show on every Internet site from here to Mars, but, I don't know.... you know, she's our girl from down the way. We love her. You understand.

Tune in! I know it will be great. And stay with me, I'll be making something great to celebrate her: iceberg lettuce and water come to mind as an old favorite but maybe she won't mind if I step it up a little in her honor!

Break a leg!

Ah, morning. Paula Deen, are you there?

My bouncing baby girl and I have arrived, with a bit less screaming and up-all-night exhaustion, at another glorious North Salem winter dawn. It's hauntingly gorgeous, this part of the world: The lake, the rolling hills of horse farms, the unbelievably over-built homes of new Westchester. It has changed a mite since I rode here as a child, but not enough that I don't recognize it any longer. They have hung on to what they value as a community: open land and green space. Folks around here don't just talk the talk, they anti-up, giving their own land, giving their resources, their time. Thanks to people like this, my daughter will have a little oxygen left at age 50, and I am grateful for them each day that I can walk on the bridle trails here.

Before I got back here though, I was everywhere. I travelled endlessly in my line of work and lived all over. I was lucky to be a witness to many food-related things. I still mull over a lot of articles I encountered, I am still infatuated with some, and driven to near-madness with frustration over others.

Facing the fact that I will have to start a controversy in order to breech this topic, but certain I should regardless, I want to tell you of my red velvet odyssey. This cake is a staple of Southern baking for which there are hordes of recipes. Having read every one I could find, and knowing a little something about cakes, I undertook to find the best one. But this is a troublesome undertaking for someone like me, because I am particular (though, on Josh's advice, trying not to be), about a great many things, but wildly so about cake and icing. I am not like Rose, I am not going to go into some colossal thesis on what makes a good chocolate cake because, I only have one palate: I need butter and chocolate

Cocoa is a thing I have to have on the shelf, apparently at this point I need to have five different types or brands. The cakes I made with them have always been like brown, tasteless, cardboard no matter how much butter was slipped under the beater. Five recipe attempts later, I gave up the ghost on cocoa red velvet cakes, they are for some other, less chocolately girl. And those recipes using oils? Also not passing muster. Buttermilk? Nope.

On Saturday mornings, I make the Sunday dinner cake or dessert. This past Sunday, this cake was slid before my sister-in-law, Amy, who is the cake barometer. This runs in her family, it's a talent, if you ask me. Was she ever tired, just pooped. Because, she had just come home from Italy (!!!!). But she was willing to give it a go, to allow this cake it take its shot at history. She has consumed a small piece each day since (she is about as big as a willow branch) and while it is going to stir a pot of tradition I both respect and adore, it's time we investigate a new turn on an old formula.

Come on, what do you say, Charleston, to leaping off the edge? I know it's not in your blood, but maybe it is in your sense of adventure. It's darker, richer, and more winningly flirty, and it's coming to you from a dedicated southophile (Hello, Websters? New word! Way better than "yummo"!). Even if it is not Paula's, it's still gooo-ood.

Haltingly, nervously, I give you:

Red Velvet Cake
North Salem, February, 2008

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened plus 2 tablespoons (for buttering pans
2 tablespoons cocoa (for dusting pans)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (not Imitation)
1 ounce red food coloring

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.Butter cake pans very generously, dust all over with cocoa powder. You could line them with parchment, but I like to take my chances, I use a lot of butter and have had no trouble thus far... place this aside for a sec.

In a smaller bowl, off to the side, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.

In a large bowl, with an electric or stand mixer, beat together softened butter and both sugars until smooth, creamy, and completely incorporated. Scrape down your bowl to be sure all in combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beat until smooth after each egg. Add the chocolate, mixing until smooth once again. Scrape down your bowl. Add the sifted flour (dry) ingredient mixture in three additions alternating with the milk. ALWAYS begin and end with the flour mixture. Scrape down your bowl again, then add the vanilla and red food coloring. Mix until combined and the color is even. Scrape down the bowl from top to bottom, check to be sure there are no big spots of unincorporated color, mix again to be sure all is combined.

Place half of mixture in each cake pan and level out as best you can. Place in oven and bake for 23 minutes, if the cake nearly bounces back to your touch, but not completely, it is done. If not, put it back for a few more minutes and test again. Just a hair underbaked is best to maintain a moist crumb which can, and should be able to be picked up from the back of a spoon and licked off in the standard cake plate cleaning ritual.

Throw your favorite Buttercream Icing atop and let it roll, this is as good as any. Good baking, ya'll.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tasty photographs

It is always an irresistible food photo that pulls me in and makes me do what I do. This time, it was the cover shot of Bon Appetit March, 2008 the Corned Beef and Fontina Sandwich. I could have gone to the store and bought some thinly sliced corned beef, the fruit of someone else's patience. I could have gone over to the Early Bird in Ridgefield where their chef has an exacting sandwich standard ( I mean it, you have never had a pastrami on toasted rye with swiss like this, Superman, but you won't worry your silly little self over kryptonite anymore). But no, I had to make the corned beef myself.

It began, as so many things around here do, with a preposterous hunt for an ingredient which is apparently "optional" but keeps the meat pink throughout the brining process, the elusive Instacure No. 1. And so, I was referred to who will sell me 1.5 pounds or 5 pounds, but I need 1 1/2 tablespoons. Have I mentioned I hate being set up for waste? Anyhow, I decided to see how bad it could really be, because I am a little Irish and my Grandmother never stood me on a chair next to her and said, "Now, baby girl, pass me the Instacure No. 1". So, now, clearly already off the beaten path, anything can happen....

I placed it into the brine yesterday. Yes, Josh, I used Guiness. And there it sits, weighted down in my fridge, where it will sit for four days until I can turn it, and weigh it down for another four days. Then, eventually,you cook this mighty six pound side of American flesh for, well, for nearly forever. And, since I have so much time on my hands with this now, I may as well figure out how to make the Fontina, and I have some Rye Flour around here somewhere... nothing but time, now, nothing but waiting. And hunger.

It leaves me wonder how I will get the meat sliced as thinly as I will want it when it is finally, finally done.
I am mulling over wandering down to Kingsley's Deli here in our fair North Salem, invoking ol' Ward's name and begging John to slice it up for me. I have some time to formulate a scheme where that is concerned now, though, don't I?

I wish this were the last time a food photo would lead me down this snarly, hungry path to a sandwich so photogenic but lengthy in process, but I am a sucker every time for the food magazine's talents. Except Gourmet, sadly, their pictures have begun to look so dark, gloomy, and forboding, I sometimes associate the food in question with a last meal. I don't want it to be my last, I love food, and food photos.

The Who's and Why's

Recently, my Brother told me that he feels guilty when I cook dinner for my family. Possibly, this has to with a sensitivity, for which I am grateful, to my caring for a new baby, a home, pets, and myself during Josh's long deployment. And my Mom (not her real name) and Laura, Josh's Mom, have all reassured me that I needn't cook or bake for them. Each time I hear this, I feel a little pekid and I can feel myself tremble. Will they take me out of my foxhole? From where I am surviving this long war?

The kitchen. My bunker. My safe place. My dance floor with my tiny baby. Home to my orchestra. Though it has, over the years, had so many homes of its own: Bedford (Chili Slathered Meatloaf), Charleston, South Carolina (veggies, a million veggies), Newport, Rhode Island (clambakes and Coq au Vin), Boston (five years of good food), back to North Salem (for which you are witness). And while it has up and moved so many times and taken so many forms, it has never failed to ease my soul and my hands, which need desperately to keep moving.

And I will come to your house, when I do, I will cook. My glorious friend Jennifer who is among the most generous and secretly gracious women of my time, and a person whom I am proud to call a friend, has yielded to this need of mine: She knows I have to stand next to her as she cooks, I need a job in her kitchen when I come to dinner. I need, I so badly need, to cook. She has never told me not to, to her great credit. Jen has a sixth sense regarding helping others. She is aware help is not always in the form of something she needs to do for you, but sometimes something she needs to let you do. That is more than nuance to a soul, it's rescue. Because of this understanding of hers, the whole fine stable she is a part of down the road here, has volunteered to eat! I am lucky to have that group of good eaters in my world, and even more lucky we came by this arrangement in a quiet and understanding fashion, the kind only Jennifer could engineer.

My husband is a good eater. In his painful absence, I am always needing someone to step in with a fork or a kitchen. Even when he is around, there is often too much food for my household, it has been at those times when being part of the Navy family has really served. If you're cooking, they'll be there. I have two dogs, the corgi, Pumpkin, the smaller of the two, is by far the better eater. While I love these pets, I am not giving them the ragu.I need your help to keep cooking and to keep us from unforgivable waste!

If you shoo me away from the counter, I will find some other food-related task like reading your cookbooks and magazines, or reviewing your local tavern. But I will be happiest if you hand me a spoon or a knife and tell me to go on. Feeling guilty about my cooking is like feeling guilty you let me sleep through the night, or took me to Dovetail for dinner, it's like feeling guilty that you did something to give me warmth, safety, or a great memory. Never feel guilty, feel good.

This recipe has become known through our family as the $50,000 burger. It is a winner for sure. You can make the compound butter whenever and pop it in the freezer, it will make 12 burgers but is also great on dinner breads. I always have two logs of these butters in there, one usually this and the other chatarelle, they are good for a multitude of things. The mayo will keep for two days, but after that the arugula or parsely will begin to go by. I am an addict for Trader Joe's Brioche Rolls but you could substitute something otherwise refined, but spare yourself the kaiser roll, it will lead to disappointment. Enjoy some or all parts of this one, while it seems like a lot of process, the work is more shopping than making.

My husband's family will remember these burgers fondly. When remade for them, a fire ensued and guests leaving that night thanks us for the exciting dinner, including the fire extinguishers being rushed through the living room. Gas grills! What fun!

The $50,000 Holiday in Spain Burger
North Salem

Compound Butter
4 tbls butter, softened
1 tbls finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
½ tsp hot paprika
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch of ground black pepper

Caper Butter
4 tbls butter, softened
1 tbls very finely chopped capers
½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch of ground black pepper

Red Onion and OJ Relish
½ cup very finely sliced red onion
2 tbls sherry vinegar (sub: Red Wine Vinegar)
2 tbls orange juice
½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch of ground black pepper

Arugula Mayo
1 cup good mayonnaise
¾ cup very finely chopped arugula (sub: parsely)
1 tbls fresh lemon juice
½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch of ground black pepper
Optional: One clove very finely minced garlic

16 medium-thin slices of pancetta from the deli counter

3 lbs ground chuck divided into 6 ½ lb portions
½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch of ground black pepper
6 brioche buns, sliced horizontally
½ lb Iberico cheese cut into 6 equal portions


Compound Butter
In a small bowl combine 4 tbls softened butter, parsley, lemon zest, hot and smoked paprikas, salt, and pepper. Stir until evenly combined, place in refrigerator until ready to assemble burger.

Caper Butter
In a small bowl, combine 4 tbls softened butter, capers, salt and pepper. Stir until evenly combined, set aside at room temperature.

Red Onion and OJ Relish
In a small bowl, combine red onion, sherry vinegar, orange juice, salt and pepper. Stir until evenly combined, place in refrigerator until ready to assemble burger.

Arugula Mayo
In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, arugula, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Stir until evenly combined, place in refrigerator until ready to assemble burger.

Place pancetta slices in a dry non-stick skillet over medium high grill heat. Be sure none are overlapping. Cook until nicely browned on the first side, turn over and repeat. Brown pancetta as for bacon, to your liking.

Burger and assembly:
Prepare a gas grill to cook on medium-high heat. Form each burger portion into patties and place 1 ½ tbls of the butter, parsley, lemon zest, mixture into the center of each portion, forming the burger patty around the pat of compound butter in the center. Season both sides of the burgers liberally with the kosher salt and pepper. Grill burger for 8 minutes and turn over grilling again for 8 minutes or until done to your liking.

While burgers cook, place buns on grill and grill for 1 minute or until showing a light grill mark and golden toasting. Remove. Butter the bottom of each bun with 1 tbls of caper butter. Remove burgers from grill when ready and place on buttered bun bottoms. Place one slice of Iberico cheese on top of each burger. Allow burgers to rest for 5 minutes. With a butter knife, carefully and evenly coat the bun tops with 1 ½ tbls. arugula mayonnaise. When the burgers have finished resting, place two slices pancetta over the cheese. Carefully spoon on top 1 ½ tbls of the Red Onion Orange Juice Relish. Cover with the top bun and serve.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Blanc Mange

Easy there, it's pretty straight-forward, not some intimidating French recipe bound to terrorize your good-hearted multiple attempts for many years. Blanc Mange, literally translated "white eats" or white food, maybe. Which is accurate, as it would be to call it a molded milk pudding. It is the
recipe you may have noted in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine contributed by Amanda Hesser with Karen DeMasco of Craft.

Print this recipe out and do this now. It will take 2 minutes to execute if you have everything on hand. If you don't, use orange zest instead of lemon, use vanilla instead of almond. But, do it now. Ramekins? Mine are over at my Mom's where I last used them to make that terribly wonderful Savory Leek Bread Pudding in Frank Sitt's Southern Table, so, I used cafe au lait bowls which work fine. But I could have used a cereal bowl or coffee cup, and it would have been just as fine. Also, I used half milk and half heavy cream, it was so beautiful I nearly teared up right there. But use Ronnybrook if you can, this is a tasty, buttery milk made by a great farm not far from here, who should keep doing what they do, even if I did not run up to the Country Farmer right then to get a bottle...

Be warned of two things not mentioned in the recipe or accompanying article:

First, "chill until firm" for me, meant four hours. And warming the outside of the bowls to loosen the pudding resulted in a puddle surrounding the still beautfully unmolded pudding (see photo). Don't be afraid of this, it won't hurt this quick, easy, silky dessert a smidge, and neither will not making the port sauce to go with it.

I had about six minutes to make Blanc Mange - Blushing Hostess history this morning while my daughter played happily, if quickly, in her crib. I love a recipe that doesn't tie me up for hours as no one around here has the patience for that at this time in our lives. Thank you, Amanda Hesser, for adding to the arsenal of well-done, elegant menu items that did not hurt a bit or intimidate in the least.

Baby, it's cold outside

I don't need to give you a recipe per se, just a set of loose guidelines for this, best of all winter treats. I want to warn you off, before I do, of anything named Hot Chocolate mix. I don't know what you need that for, mixing up grout paste, maybe, but not for Hot Chocolate.

Off to the cabinet, you go. Rustle around until you find these items:

Hot Chocolate, Loosely

A bar of dark chocolate
A bit of cocoa power
Some milk (whole is always best, that's Rule #1 of being a Blushing Hostess)
A wee bit of cream (heavy or whipping)

Now, get out a saucepan and set it over medium-low heat (never scorch milk fats, Rule #2).
Pour enough milk in to make as many mugs of hot chocolate as you guess you'll need, just eye-ball it (this isn't Bon Appetit's March 2008 Corned Beef, just relax and enjoy it). Throw in two squares of dark chocolate, a tablespoon or two of heavy cream, and a tablespoon of cocoa powder per serving (or mug, as it were). Whisk, or stir until the chocolate is melted, all is incorporated, and a steam rises from the top of the liquid. Do not boil it, don't even simmer.
Pour into mugs, top with my homemade marshmallows (stay tuned), kick back in your fat chair
with your laptop so you can keep reading in comfort.

The Breadsticks

The Breadstick mystery of 2008. It will surely be solved when and if I put my hands on a copy of Bobby Flay's latest cookbook, but until I reach number 32 on my to-do list, I will have to count on my readers. Maybe you sense the dismay, the frustration, the need behind one reader's comment: What is on the breadsticks served at the bar at Mesa Grill, anyway?

I have my suspicions. After half an hour spent in my herb and spice basket, carefully tasting items I thought might be suspects in the scheme: I finger ancho and chipotle chili powders among others upon which I can only leave you argue until one of you kind souls jets in here with the answer. When I get it, it will solve my question on why an innocent little breadstick made by Chef Flay and company sneaks up and punches me in the face with such force. It packs a long, slow whallop thoroughly unexpected (perhaps only by me, it is TexMex after all).

If you think our collective commitment to this bar nosh is wavering, perhaps inattentive, you are so very wrong. Right at this moment, Dori has a stale section of one of these items wandering around the bottom of her handbag, where it will stay, she vowed, until she figures it out.

So come on people, throw me a breadstick.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Turkey Tenderloin with Cranberry Balsamic Glaze

I developed this recipe in a desperate, cabinet clearing moment when something had to be done about the pantry and its upkeep. Somehow, the tidy, inventory pixie had forgotten my house! This is not the kind of thing I usually do, mind you, I am forever producing food from vastly complicated and obtuse recipes which would have been so much easier if an editor somewhere had simply told the writer to knock it off now (Rose Levy Berenbaum, I am talking to you).

You could pan sear this meat first. I have, and it is good but not enough to make a remarkable difference under a sauce such as this after slow cooking.

In any event, food to save your life and your cabinet:

Turkey Tenderloin with Cranberry Balsamic Glaze

2 turkey tenderloins of 2 lbs each
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 16 ounce can whole cranberry sauce
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 carrots, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves (California, Turkish, fresh all fine)
A mixed handful of dried oregano, sage, thyme
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
1 tbls. butter

Place all ingredients except the butter into your slow cooker set to Low. Allow to cook until turkey pulls away from itself easily with a fork, or until it reaches (ugh) 165 degrees internal temperature on a meat thermometer.

Leave the meat in the slow cooker but remove as much of the liquid as you can with a ladle and place in a saucepan. Simmer the liquid over medium heat until reduced to one third the original volume or until it coats the back of your spoon as a sauce. Add the butter and stir to dissolve. Serve the meat in slices fanned over quinoa or couscous. Spoon sauce over all. Serves 4 neatly.

Champange Cocktails: Rites, Rituals, and Habits, Visited

I was obligated to make notes on the margaritas because they were fresh in my mind. I know very well they are not my favorite cocktail, not even the one I find most intriguing (a post for another day). That is a place of honor reserved for The Revered One. The one all pretty hands should hold, Cosmopolitan's be gone.

This is a memoir of the Chambord champagne cocktail.

Say the words champagne cocktail words in any fine establishment and you can be met with any combination of disastrous results. The person making this drink these days might ask probing questions: Where are you from? How old are you? And if not able to pinpoint your preferences therein: How do like it? Why I just read a blog by someone contending a Mimosa is a champagne cocktail. Indeed, and in fact, it is, but it is not The One, nor is it the Champagne Cocktail, nor, is it the Kir Royale (all bow to another great).

I like it with champagne and Chambord, and maybe a tiny sugar cube. I do not like it with Angostura bitters, lemon, orange, God only knows what else - brandy? triple sec? Until recently, I was unaware mixology had taken these liberties with The One, but I beg of you, put down the pour spouts and step away from the champagne. I assure you, you are needed somewhere, just not here, in front of me. Surely, Mesa Grill needs you, someone there invented the Cactus Pear Margarita (I know, I know, enough already). But I so rarely get to have a champagne cocktail, no need to adulterate it, or fuss. Maybe it seems like thing for girls who like a fuss, can tolerate some tinkering, like to their drinks to be moved along in contemporary mores. But, it is not.

This drink should be hazily twinkling in a tone of light lavender. It should rise in a long, elegant slip of a glass. It slides up next to you, and you are suddenly reminded of places you have never been but loved anyhow: Big band orchestras, Elaine's, opening night at The Met. Who knows. It could remind of anything grand and celebratory. I am not alone in this sensation, two weeks ago I watched a bartender at Lexington Avenue Cafe in Mt. Kisco, New York make one with such reverence and attention to detail, it was if he had cut and placed the Hope Diamond upon his gleaming bar. He understands what I have to tell you: The simplest, clearest things are those we need guard most fiercely.

Just leave me the Tattinger, if you please, and a tiny bit of Chambord. Leave me the old rooms where I have found it and they have maintained it: Crabtree's Kittle House, Mt. Kisco, New York, The Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C., Bemelman's at the Carlyle, New York. Keep all your new twists, both literal and figurative
for the Hibiscus moments in all of our souls, that is a good drink too, but for another, less nostalgic day of the heart.

Let's Talk Cocktails: Mesa Grill's Cactus Pear Margarita, Centrico's Hibiscus Margarita

Come on, you know who you are, and I know you are reading along. You have a drinking problem. The problem has to do with being too geographically far afield from Mesa Grill's Cactus Margarita, not to mention the breadstick bar noshes (but I digress).

You see it in your best dreams, electric fuchsia in shade with a vibrant lime clinging to the edge of the old fashioned glass edge, wishing, wishing it could leap, like you, into the glory inside the rim. It is sweet and salty all at once, like a cool Pacific breeze across your tongue. Not the way margarita's used to be for you before you knew this one, no. New, thrilling, you're rolling it up and down in your mouth like you were some Coney Island refugee looking for a new, legal, adult thrill. Well, you found it, Mr. and Mrs. Dangerous, now if only you lived closer to it, or could somehow figure out adequate Fedex packaging from Manhattan to you... what will do now that you know what you know? Well, don't look at me, I do what it takes to get the real thing. You live in Palm Beach? Ugh, that is a pickle.

Oh, fine, here's the recipe. Food Network has published it, but who cares? It's not the same without the duck quesdilla, the pillowly queso fundido, the marbled blue corn biscuits... make away, it surely loses something without the food it is destined to accompany.

Aaron Sanchez. Can we have a conversation about that Hibiscus Margarita of yours? How do you do it, reach that perfect cheek-puckering icy crescendo of deep aubergine fuel that is the Centrico Hibiscus Margarita? I have been there, to your place, and not seen you. Are you truly the Chef, or have you lent your name out and scurried off to Central America to study further or bask (deservedly) in the sun? You certainly left us a doozie, if you will, before you took off, and I will not be some thankless consumer of liquid perfection. Thank you, Aaron Sanchez, wherever you are (though it would have been really great if you could have popped up and at least thrown together some sopes for us before you bolted).

This little tidbit you have just thirstily languished through is sure to cause some readers to pummel one another verbally, with good reason, one's tongue guides one in personal and inexplicable ways. I like the whole thing at Mesa: the location, feeling you are in the true middle of the foodie thing in New York, the dressed up and down again nature of the place and the fact that it goes big in everything it does. I suppose I agree with Frank Bruni's assessment in the New York Times recently which took a star from Mesa Grill and leaving it with one, for technical reasons only he, other culinary grads, and front-house managers understand. But if stars were given for fun places to imbibe tasty, pretty cocktails and small bites on wintery evenings at the holidays, then ***!

And Centrico: It's a little off the beaten path in New York City, for me. I went to school in that neighborhood and it has always seemed a workday section of the city. However, the place did eventually begin to move on a Saturday evening at 8:30. The cocktails and food were fabulous though the bar crowd lacked a little, er, no, completely. Then, $15 for guac and chips is always a little stupid, I don't care who you are. But, this will be forgiven because this is a free country and I don't have to eat the chips, and because of that Hibiscus Margarita. As life moves on from here, it will always do so with slightly less dazzle if I do not have a Hibiscus Margarita before me.

Fire away.

Here is Mesa.
Here is Centrico.

And as I give you these sites, I note Centrico has gifted us with a recipe
which I will one day try and report back on. At the moment, I am tied up with Bon Appetit March 2008's cover recipe, 12 days to a great Corned Beef sandwich...

Zucchini Bread, A Freezer's Best Friend

Breakfast is my least favorite meal for no good reason. Literally. I have had a devil of a time finding food worth eating which was available before 11 am. Ask my poor parents who finally got me to agree, at a demanding age seven, to eat canned pears on top of Entemann's pound cake ( I still love that grainy cool pear texture against things soft, sweet, and spongy). Last fall my Godmother went into the hospital and I had cause to figure out what she might like to have at home when she returned. She is not a sweet eater, generally. Over the years she has been kind enough to try anything I made but this was no time for obnoixious experimentations with cloyingly sweet Gorilla Breads and the like (Amy pulled that duty, bravely). I have an old Banana Bread receipe scribbled on a piece of paper from many years ago. I began there, and ended here. Now look, do not be afraid to bake, just follow the amounts I have give you exactly and you will be pleased. If you have some of the spices, not all, have no fear, use what you have, leave out what you don't. The baking soda, powder, flour and salt, in anything you bake is critical, however.

This is now a freezer staple for me, the finicky breakfast girl. It is dark and lusty, worthy of thin pieces toasted with good butter, though I eat it thicker and in any state of warmth. Eat my bread, conquer the world.

Two things of which to be mindful:
1. The more butter you use in buttering your loaf pan, the more deliciously crusty and tasty the sides of the loaf, do not be mizerly!
2. The zest appears in many things I make to freshen the flavors, and works like a charm;
I have used lemon zest with equally pleasant results.

Zucchini Bread
North Salem, September 2007

1/4 cup butter, softened, more for greasing pan generously
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup dark brown sugar or muscavado
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup shredded skin-on zucchini
1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces
1/2 teaspoon orange zest

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Butter a loaf pan very generously with the additional butter.
With a mixer, combine the butter, oil, and dark brown sugar until incorporated evenly and smooth in appearance. Add the eggs to this butter mixture and mix until incorporated. Add the sifted flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in three separate additions. Mix once again until smooth. Squeeze and drain the shredded zucchini. Fold zucchini, pecans, and orange zest into batter. Pour batter into the buttered loaf pan and bake for 55 to 60 minutes until golden brown or until the center of the cake bounces back to your touch. Remove from the oven and allow to sit 10 minutes before overturning pan on a cooling rack. Allow to cool another 20 minutes before slicing, if you are able! Makes one loaf, or enough to ultimately satisfy only a small rodent

I am coming to dinner, I will buy the plates

Only once, maybe twice, in your short life will you call me, practically panting, and nearly voiceless from having called your parents, siblings, and friends and shouted the same words, "We're getting married!" When you make this call, rest assured, wherever I am, and even if I am engaged in a truly detestable activity (polishing the silver, changing a diaper, or ironing napkins leap to mind), whatever I am holding, including the phone will drop to the floor. My face will grow wide with an honest-to-goodness grin, not the kind the receptionist at the salon gives you before she hands you the smock and waves you off to the changing room. And I will squeal with joy with both hands in the air. When I get back to the phone, I will ask you so many questions to which you have few answers and whatever answers you think you have will change dramatically in three months time. Everyone you tell will have a reaction similar to this gushing and wildly excited romp through my memories and hope for your future. Why? Everyone loves a happy ending, their own, and yours. That is the first incontrovertible fact of a wedding in the making, okay?

Now you have my attention, my good wishes (that is not just something scribbled on a card, I really mean it), my prayers, and my attendance. So, don't be bashful. Do not fear the best place settings and the fine silver you adore. If you choose not to represent your most magnificent material wishes on a registry, you will not be celebrated the way you truly deserve to be. Worse, it indicates you need to be reminded who you are, and who I am:

You came into this world, most probably, in a hail of screams, joy, tears, and unbridled happiness. You were welcomed onto this earth by two parents who would die for you well before you arrived, a family brought to knees for the addition you were, and instant friends who have stood by you, and will, cradle to grave, my friend. You are a magical and precious star, and you have been since the first moment you glimpsed us, took your withering original exhausted breath, and felt chilly. Your world leapt right then to warm you and to make sure this life held promise and beauty. They do not mean to fail you now. Not now, when you've only begun to plan, daydream, and begin a whole new set of goals. Among these goals, should you know it or not,is to see a select group of people at your table because they are in your corner.

If I am one of those people, and I should be, because I am in the corner of humanity in general,
and I am coming to dinner (more on cooking later, not to worry, help is on the way!) then, I do not mind to get you those gorgeous plates you love. Even, the ones from France, even, with current exchange rates, even though they look more dressy than you imagine yourself, because I am celebrating you, you magical star from back in the delivery room! I know you, and I care about you, I want you to have things you love to look at, even if you never use them.

Lois and her equally marvelous, gracious husband gave me my flute glasses five years ago. They come out for all the great moments of our lives, and wherever they are at that moment, I look at those glasses and they are with me. Forever in my toasts, forever with my happiest moments.

I cook a great deal, two or three times a day. My beautiful chef's knife was a gift from Rebecca.
It is a menacing looking piece of German engineered steel, and it has prepared every meal served in this home since before we were married. She is with me, in a quality thing, that contributes to who we are as a family, each day.

Now, I had a lot of registries when I was married; My husband is from far away, some of the guests vocally wished for one company over another. I was foolish enough to think it mattered to keep many others happy in this endeavor. It did not because I have learned since, they are trying to make you happy, and therefore, do whatever you want but before you do, memorize these words: Pick the best, most lovely, and important thing I could ever place in your home. Love it, truly, love it. I want you to, because I want to be there, with you, in a joyous way, for all time.

Someone I met not long ago reminded me of this sentiment in telling me she had registered for a costly decoupage tissue box cover when she was married. As years pressed on and brought joy and pain, she always reached over to that box, looked at that floral pattern she so adored, and was reminded of how she was not alone in whatever she was feeling. It was a gracious, old school gift that might otherwise be overlooked for its thoughtfulness, but it was thoughtful, was it ever.

If you feel you have missed your chance, don't. We are all still here, giving gifts, though maybe not with the same enormous pile-on that is the wedding festivities. You still have time to dream. My friends, send us your registries, at any age and dream on of those things you would love to see each day. Including me, when I come to dinner, and your place setting tells me my visit was important enough to put out something you adore.

These old stand-by retailers are my favorites for both practical and sentimental reasons. While they have great websites, their retail floors are twinkling palaces ablaze with museum quality refinements which are barely good enough, dare I say, to be in your home, my dazzling star, but try nonetheless to imagine which ones would mean the most to you. Then, raise us up on email, by homing pigeon, or here, and sure enough, we'll all make a note of it. For years surely do go by that we wonder what all you might like to see appear on your doorstep.

Michael C. Fina
Tiffany & Co.

We will only do this dance once, you and I, for real. The second time, I will be just as thrilled but often you go off quietly and I don't get the chance to celebrate you in earnest a second time, an opportunity I also would not want to miss.
Welcome to a small corner of my life and history on the page. We have created this blog to talk about things cultured, mannered, and domestic. I will reach out to you from fair North Salem, New York on food, wine, tradition, manners, and issues not far flung from any of these concerns. This great world cooks less, gathers around a family table on fewer evenings, and shys from the use of good glassware and sterling silver, it is these changes upon which my dialogue here will revolve.

But fear not, contemporary and more casual world, myself and the dashing host, John, are here. To give you some of the recipes we have enjoyed most as a family, and discuss anecdotes and items from a curiously dressed-down planet. And while I have not been to a Junior League meeting in sometime (ever since the cattiness began to seem less than charitable), I am still a league member in so many other worthy groups, both organized and otherwise. I am not an authority on anything: Sometimes I am a willing tester of a formula or theory, a wonderer regards arcane and esoteric traditions and manners which still have a place in my home, a young mother known to drink gimlets in kitten heels in some swank spots, a rider, a person with generations of monogrammed items, a recently early-retired fashion executive, a passionate reader and an observer, an endless observer.

Occasionally, you will see notes here regards some fabulous people, some of whom might be recognized for their significant contributions to this promising world of ours. Many began along side me, in Bedford, New York. More turned up along the way. I would be remiss here if I did not credit a few souls right from the opening salvo: My Mother and Grandmother, whose sit-up-straight homes, eyes for beautiful things and talents in others, and seemingly endless knowledge of how a thing is done correctly launched me, registry in hand, into a well-appointed life. My husband, a handsome and elegant Naval officer whose patience is remarkable and hope irrespressable. Margaret, whose curiousity is contagious. Mary, God rest her soul, whose style notes stay with me ever so vividly, on being a halting gorgeous wife and mother who gardened in Lilly Pulitzer, with a home so delicately considered in hopeful yellows, golfy greens, and the highs and lows of peach tones against deep burled woods, creamy old porcelains, and perfectly attended-to silvers that the thought of her living room still makes me wistful for old Bedford. Lois, her equally as devastatingly beautiful and gifted daughter who maintains all the mannered capacities of her mother, but is truly gifted in remarkable graciousness and a clarity of good spiritedness unrivaled. Dori and her Mom, who have taught me everything I know about families that persevere, sit together, laugh, and eat. It was at their sides I learned Italian cooking as a young girl, the extraordinary gift of big families, and as an adult, what it takes to see a family through the hardest of times. Rebecca and her family, who never fail to go to the aid of another in any circumstance, without care of loss to themselves, define giving in new and powerful ways each day. And Robbie and his remarkable Mom and Dad who I have not seen in too long, for keeping up the silver, appearances, relevent memberships, and the humor in the blue-blooded march to the grave tumbler in hand; how you have managed to retain and indeed refine good manners in a livable and entertaining way, for a world which, sadly, may not have tuned in with out you.

We will still watch each of you for tips, and my que to come to this journal and note what has gone beautifully and what has tripped off in an unexpected direction. Here is where I will note holding on to, and building upon, a gracious life, such as you have demonstrated. So, bearing in mind all the the toasts we've yet to give and with great hope for all the joy we can share here, I begin the Blushing Hostess.