A First Birthday, Many Thank You’s

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A handful of people have asked me questions like, “How did you know you wanted to be a mother?” or “Did you always know you wanted to have kids?” since Olive was born.   Not sure I can say how I knew, but the truth is I have always known I would be a mother.  Understandably, this is not always the case for every mama and papa out there, but for me, I knew.   This sort of lifelong “knowing” has greatly taught me about my own instincts.  Being a mother was  something I always knew I wanted to be.  Excited about a new life that Matt and I would create, and obviously excited for seeing my own child grow and wander through this world, I was also incredibly intrigued and curious about how I would change.   Olive Julia has not only given me constant, heightened and welcomed enlightenment, but she has also helped shape me into a better and more well-rounded person, and I deeply, deeply thank her for that.

Last June, we celebrated our sweet lady’s very first birthday, and it was a big “Thank you” to Olive, but also to all of our beloved friends and family who generously carried us through our first year as new parents.   I wanted her birthday to be a warm gathering of friends and family.   After all, I don’t think Olive would be the sweet and good natured baby she is without the love and support of our extended family.  This birthday was for all of us. Many people have asked me to share the details of her birthday on B&Y, and I am happy to do so.

Theme:

Olive’s first birthday party theme was inspired by summer farmer’s markets.  Being born on the first day of summer, and seeing as her mom and dad love spending time at our local markets, it seemed to fit.  I wanted the atmosphere to be comfortable where folks could picnic on the lawn, mingle by the drink table, and choose veggies and fruit as if they were at a local market.

Decoration:

I wanted to the party to be authentic yet tasteful.  The eye candy was the farmer’s market table which I set up exactly as you might see at a traditional market.  I purchased seasonal fruits and veggies from our local market and beefed it up with a few items from the grocery store.  I used a variety of baskets including small bushels and  other similar containers for berries and the like.  Using plywood and paint from Michael’s, I painted signs for the market.  I free wrote the letters to make the signs look like believable side of the road signs.  In addition, I bought bulk canvas bags and sprayed them with a fabric paint using a tree template.  These bags served as sacks for the farmer’s market treats that guests were able to fill them to the brim as goodie bags for the party.   A chalkboard sign indicated each guest to fill a tote from the market before they left the party.  A friend helped to supply the bunting, balloons were purchased from a local party store, and I bought a few items from Kara’s Party Ideas .  We spread blankets along the lawn, each accompained by balloons, party horns, and sidewalk chalk.

Food:

Matt grilled up dogs and burgers.  I made 3 side dishes including Alice Waters Summer Vegetable Salad, a garlic potato salad (Erin, if you are reading, this is your recipe from a few years back) and a sweet and savory slaw.  For dessert, I made blueberry hand pies for all everyone.  Olive had a special pear hand pie for her “cake” to fit in with the theme, but also to avoid blueberry stains!  Another chalkboard sign indicated the menu.  The drink station included a homemade lavender lemonade and classic sodas I bought from a local, boutique candy store.  We had green river, 312 root beer, and even sarsaparilla sodas.  We made sure beer and wine were plentiful, and I also encouraged the adults to add a topper of rose or sparkling white to the lavender lemonade…that was a huge hit.  Lastly, we indulged on a snow cone machine from Amazon, and purchased Jelly Belly syrups, cones, and straws.  The snow cones were a huge success!

Activities:

Considering this was mostly an adults party, my sister-in-law and I organized a relay races for all guests.  This was the highlight of the party! We started with egg and spoon, moved on to potato sack races, 3 legged race, and ended with a picnic basket relay where each team member and to empty a basket, set a place setting with plates, silverware etc, put on whatever costumes pieces were in the basket, blow a party horn and then return to my sister-in-law, Allie,  for a slip of paper that indicated how you must return to your team after repacking the basket (i.e. moonwalk, crabwalk, disco, grapevine and so on).  Prizes for the winning team were homemade cookies made by my other sister-in-law, Jenna.  She made “Olive O’s”- a cookie inspired by the beloved Oreo as well as brown butter, chocolate chip cookies.  Yum!  We also had Bags and horseshoes set up on the side of the yard.

Her birthday was a huge success despite the sweltering early summer heat.  Everyone who attended brought lots of love, smiles, and good vibes.  Miss Olive made it through the whole party without napping, Grammy and Grandpa survived a backyard full of balloons, party favors, bubbles and food, and mom and dad felt proud, accomplished, and fortunate to celebrate their first year of parenthood.  Miss Olive- we love you!  Any suggestions for this year’s theme?  Have a question about some of my DIY projects or recipes?  Put a comment below!  Before you go, check out some of our photos from Olive’s first birthday party.

The Art of Simple Conversation

Alice Waters is doing a good thing.  She’s been doing a good thing for a long time.  If you are unfamiliar with her work, you have been living under a food rock for nearly three decades.  Chef, author, food aficionado, and most notably famous for her restaurant in Berkeley California, Chez Panisse,  Alice Waters is largely responsible for bringing local, sustainable and organic food practices to the plates of American’s nationwide.   In the 1970’s a food revolution was happening in northern California.  Waters was paving the way along with Ruth Reichl- author,  critic and editor for both the The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.  She laid her roots in Berkeley California where she was co owner and chef of Swallow- an important establishment of the 1970’s food revolution which Alice Waters was pioneering.

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Ruth Reichl & Alice Waters

A few months ago, I had the honor of attending The Art of Simple Food: Alice Waters in Conversation with Ruth Reichl at the Art Institute- one of the host’s for The Chicago Humanities Festival where Waters was promoting her new book- The Art of Simple Food 2.   I owe this privileged experience to the good folks at Chicago Foodies who hooked me up with a media pass to cover the event.  CF does not like us to repeat our posts on personal blogs so for that reason, I will send you here  (although I will admit the intros are pretty similar).  However, I will tell you that this was one of the best foodie experiences I have had yet.  Being a big fan of Alice Waters for a long time and having read and cooked from many of her books, I was especially excited to attend.   I have also always been aware of Ruth Reichl’s important presence in the food writing world.  It was an evening where two masterful food philosophers spoke eloquently about food and food practices. I was hanging on every word.  Afterward, Waters signed a copy of her new book.  I asked her to dedicate it to Olive.  I also told her that as an emerging food writer, teacher, and new mother I appreciated being a part of the evening she hosted.  She grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and  looked into my eyes as if to say she empathized with me.  She signed the book “With hopefulness, to Olive Julia”.

P1070735atH4dzxUovH9DJbjYSoi6xMUgFvUxyKttXCDZQCHwsZMIpPvpKmOLquUG6bX3MNEmCILEDfeyo0YpZPlQM8E3m01cNoY1Pb9W-nXyBkFUcBkhPdxvhSYHX4R_nGXfuqWUjSHERy1awB4ZPA9Aw67=s0-d-e1-ftOn the way home, I took an Uber car.  The driver was from Pakistan.  We talked about food practices in Pakistan versus America, spiritual butchering rituals, goat’s meat, where to eat Pakistani food, and gyros (his favorite food since moving to America).  Our conversation was an easy one to have.  Anyone will talk about food.  It’s a good opener.  It’s what needs to happen in order for our food world to change.  More conversations about where our food comes from and how it is made.  Until then, talk to the people around you.  Ask them what they make for dinner, where they buy or grow their food, or start by listening.  See the video below:

A Visit with Purple Door Ice Cream

P1070562 My earliest memories of eating ice cream are with Bubby, sitting at the kitchen table in our one bedroom, third floor walk up in West Rogers Park.   Chocolate was her favorite flavor evident by her all too often stained house coats and pockets plump with tissue.  Deliberately she would place each spoonful of ice cream into her mouth as she closed her eyes and swallowed.  When the bowl was close to being finished, Bubby would etch the spoon around the bowl as it collected the very last bits of melted chocolate ice cream.  She wasted nothing and savored every mouthful.

During those years, our apartment where we lived with Bubby would often become chaotic and if there were any quiet at all, it usually drifted into the back of the apartment, into our kitchen. There we would sit, among the burnt orange teapots dotting the wallpaper, the lamp above the table whose painted stars we lit for Papa Jack on night’s like his birthday, among the towels which draped from cabinet handles, and the canned fruits and vegetables strategically placed so her blindness would not stop her from knowing what was in her own pantry.   It was there where we sat and munched and slurped and scooped, licked our fingers and wiped ourselves clean.  The simplicity of those moments has never been lost on me, and  with the winter in Chicago being so brutal coupled with working long days and not seeing my Olive as often as I’d like, I have found great joy in the simple moments myself, always highly aware and savoring every moment.

When I was invited by Lauren and Steve Schultz of Purple Door Ice Cream to visit their new build-out, set to open in mid-March, I was thrilled.  I had first heard of their ice cream on an episode of Wisconsin Foodies.  At that time they were working out of Clock Shadow Creamery, a cheese purveyor  down the street.  Now, with their grand opening around the corner, Lauren and her husband Steve are expanding the team at Purple Door Ice Cream to include a part-time ice cream maker.  “Up until now it was me and Steve making every batch by hand.”  When I asked Lauren about the inspiration behind her store, she said “It had been a dream of mine since middle school.”   It was that same imagination and tenacity that helped bring Lauren’s dream to fruition. What sets Purple Door apart from other ice creams is the simplicity and boldness of its flavor.  Using local ingredients and hand crafting every batch, Purple Door Ice Cream keeps its taste simple, its texture rich, and does not disappoint in flavor.  “We have eleven base flavors, but we hand swirl all of our mix-ins.  We want to keep the integrity of the ice cream.”   The fourteen percent butterfat uses milk and cream from Wisconsin dairy farms while their quality ingredients are carefully selected from local artisans including Anodyne coffee beans, Rishi tea leaves, chocolate and even liqueurs to name a few.   “Sourcing locally provides a lot of inspiration”, Lauren tell us as she pulls pints for Matt and I to sample.  With the expansion of their store, Purple Door Ice Cream will also branch out into local restaurants and stores in Wisconsin and the Chicagoland area including Whole Foods, Mariano’s and Southport Grocery.

Chicago has seen dreary weather for many months now, and although I find myself longing for the sun’s affection, I try to acknowledge the small moments that are my own bit of sunlight; Olive’s infectious smile in the morning, Matt’s grasp as he helps me hurdle the snow, tastes of rich ice cream on a blustery February afternoon.  Our visit to Purple Door Ice Cream reminded me that summer isn’t so far away, and in the meantime I have much to celebrate.  For Lauren and Steve, they are growing their company while staying close to their Midwestern roots.  For Bubby, she celebrated hugs from me and my sister and bowls of chocolate ice cream.  Former Olympic runner and noted author, Don Kardong once said “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”  Lauren’s invitation (and the many, indulgent helpings of ice cream) helped bring light to this forever winter, evoking memories with Bubby, who in a time of uncertainty and confusion was always my forever light. 2060_771183305330_3658_n

Chicken Thighs with Parsnip Puree

I literally have no food in the house.  We are talking bare bones.  A few lingering carrots, a random bag of parsnips, and the only saving grace  – a few chicken thighs in the freezer.  With little to nothing but a bit of intuition, a beautiful combination of flavors emerged that nurtured our spirit and made for a very satisfying dinner.  I rarely swoon over my own dishes, but with this I had no shame.  I swooned the shit of this dish.  I highly encourage all of you to make this on a cold night, when you feel like you could use a little extra warmth at the end of a very long day.

Ingredients:

Serves 2-3

1 lb Chicken Thighs

Salt/ freshly ground pepper

1-1.5lb chicken thighs

1/4 cup or so chopped onion

Capers

2-3 cloves crushed garlic

Sweet paprika

Smoked salt

Fresh thyme

Chicken broth

2 Bay Leaves

4 large parsnips

¼ cup or so heavy cream

Fresh thyme

Salt

1-2 crushed cloves of garlic

Instructions:

Rinse, pat dry and salt and pepper chicken thighs.  Place in pan- I prefer my dutch oven- brown chicken thighs on both sides.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Add olive oil to dutch oven and saute onions until they begin to sweat, add in capers and stir about, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the dutch oven and finally adding the crushed garlic, mix about.   Add chicken back to pan along with sweet paprika and smoked salt.  You will notice I did not include specific measurements in the recipe because I simply did not keep track.  Just do what feels right for you.  Stir about, coating the chicken in the onion/caper mix.  Lastly, add thyme.  Pour chicken stock over chicken thighs, just covering them. Cover and simmer 45 minutes.

For parsnips, fill a large pot with salted water and two bay leaves, bring to a boil.   Add in four parsnips, peeled.  Cook until tender.  Remove parsnips from water and place in food processor.  Add 1/4 cup or so of cream, or 1-2tbl butter, whatever fat you like, fresh thyme, salt and 1-2 crushed cloves of garlic.  Process until smooth.

Sit chicken in the parsnip puree, top with stock from the pan.  Enjoy.

Decadent Comfort Food for the Winter

I LOVE CHRISTMAS.   I love the pagenatry, the romantacism, the sparkle, the anticipation, I love it all.  There is an undeniable spirit that I find irresistably delightful.  This year, our tree was full and bright, adordned with  ornaments- each year adding a new one to our collection; keepsakes of our budding family.  1499426_10151786641901331_1470693544_nThis being our first Christmas with our darling Olive, I wanted to make the holiday extra special.  I had planned on cooking for both Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day breakfast.  I wanted the food to be decadent and rich, something that could warm our bellies and hearts.  For Christmas Eve dinner I turned to Alice Waters.  Her cookbooks are full of simple and elegant recipes and use whole ingredients that are easy to prepare.  Everything is equally satisfying and tasteful.    Her slow cooked pork shoulder is easily one of my most favorite things I have ever made.  To accompany the salty and fatty pork, I roasted brussel sprouts alongside sweet potatoes of which I drizzled honey and dusted with cinnamon and curry powder.  I included a parsnip and thyme puree which added an interesting textural and aromatic component .  For dessert, a lemon blackberry cheesecake.  It was my first cheesecake, It was really good.

Cheesecake Batter

Cheesecake Batter

Christmas Day, I made grilled brie sandwiches layered with roasted strawberries and dark chocolate.  I credit this find to Jessica at How Sweet It Is.  For this treat, simply toss halved strawberries in olive oil and lay a single layer on a cookie sheet and roast for 20 mins at 350 degrees- toss halfway through roasting.  In the meantime, butter two slices of good grilling bread like sourdough, or maybe try experimenting with challah or brioche- on the outside.  Layer one side with brie, broken pieces of dark chocolate (I used dark chocolate with coffee) and top with roasted strawberries.  Grill in pan until outside is golden and the inside begins to melt.  Use a fork and knife.

Grilled Brie Sandwiches with Roasted Strawberries and Dark Chocolate

Grilled Brie Sandwiches with Roasted Strawberries and Dark Chocolate

But really, this post is all about the star of the show-  Alice Water’s Long-Cooked Pork Shoulder from her Chez Panissee Cafe Cookbook.  This is a go-to, no-brainer recipe that always steals the show at every dinner.  The longer cooking time allows the fat on top to render making the most perfectly crisp top that melts like butter in your mouth and helps keep the meat tender and moist.  It is pure pork heaven.

Ingredients: 1 bone-in pork shoulder about 4 lbs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Red pepper flakes

Chopped sage

Instructions:

Alice Waters recommends having your butcher tie the meat to the bone.  Keeping the meat close to the bone greatly enhances the flavor.

Liberally season the meat with the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and sage the day before.  Wrap and place pork shoulder in the fridge.

The next day, bring the pork shoulder to room temp.  Waters recommends roasting the pork in an earthenware baking dish at 4oo degrees for two hours and twenty minutes.  After two hours, baste the pork with the rendered fat.  Let the meat rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Pork Belly and Chickpea Chili- A Comeback Story

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I am not sure I have ever made chili but maybe once in my life…probably because I really do not like beans and therefore stay away from chili.  This weekend, however,  I found myself not only making chili but also tasting lots of it after my friend Amy asked me to help with her first ever annual chili cook-off for charity.  Her idea was to invite folks who would decide if they wanted to be chili makers or chili tasters, and in addition raise funds for The Greater Chicago Food Depository, a charity that provides thousands of meals to people in the Chicagoland area everyday.    Cook-off and charity sounded like a no-brainer at first, but to be honest I was not sure I would be able to participate.  Being swamped at work with a variety of agendas I wasn’t sure how I could make another commitment.  Beginning to struggle back and forth about whether or not I could commit, I realized something very important which has catapulted a new attitude for me about the year ahead.  Sounds heavy, doesn’t it?  I mean, I get it.  When did chili become so profound?  But what this cook-off gave me was the opportunity to choose between stressing over whether or not this would fit into my schedule or embracing the commitment and trusting there would be time because food and event planning are things I love to do — things I want to be doing always and more of — so the decision to do this cook-off wasn’t just about “Could I?” it was about seeing an opportunity and embracing it.

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Here is what I mean when I say “an exploration into a richer life” because you never know what may come of something and it can’t be wrong if it is something you truly love.  So when the world said, “Here — here is something that you love to do”,  I did it, and the reward was amazing.  Unfortunately, my pork belly, chickpea chili did not win (I mean, it was pretty awesome and got the praises of the TND crew- so, definite personal win), but regardless the whole day was really brilliant.  Everything seemed to flow right.  It was a day full of good food, good beer, good people, everyone down to be down.  I met some wonderful people at the cook-off and visited with more friends late into the evening over wine, little bites, and fulfilling conversation about art, theatre, food, travel….gah- I love stuff like this.  At the end of the night, while looking back at the happy mess of empty glasses among leftover cheese rinds and bits of mustard and relishes left strewn about, I scoffed at the fact that I had even considered not doing the cook-off.   I saw how the commitment paid off in evolving friendships and laughter coupled with ideas and stories that went on in my head long after everyone had gone home.  I had decided in that moment that this year is going to be a great year.  It is going to be my year, and with this post I re-claim my title as food (and sometimes travel) blogger, and am excited about what’s in the works, which includes a visit to Purple Door Ice Cream in Milwaukee and a sit down with my new fave gal pal and outstanding food stylist- Johanna Lowe of Martyn George.  In the meantime, here is my pork belly, chickpea chili recipe especially for you my dear Chicago friends.  This is sure to unearth you from the cold and warm your bellies and your hearts.  Unless you don’t like pork belly, but then you’re probably not reading my blog anyway.P1070362

RECIPE

*This recipe is from The New Best Recipe Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.  This is my go to cookbook for solid, standard recipes.  Great if you are not an expert chef, and useful if you need a base from which you can add personal touches.  I adapted their Beef Chili with Kidney Beans recipe just a bit by adding more or less spices here and there, and exchanging the beef for ground pork belly and the beans for chickpeas.  Make a night or two ahead if you can.  Chili is always best when it has had some time to rest.

ingredients

2tbl veg or corn oil

2 med onions finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2 in cubes

6 garlic cloves, pressed

1/4 Adobo Chili powder

1 tbl freshly ground cumin

2 tsp freshly ground coriander

1-2 tbl red pepper flakes

1 tsp Herbs de Provence (original recipe calls for dried oregano)

1/2tsp cayenne pepper

2 lbs ground pork belly (ask your butcher to grind the meat for you if you do not have a meat grinder at home)

2 15 oz cans of garbanzo beans (rinsed)

1 can diced tomatoes

1 can tomato puree

salt

lime wedges for serving

Instructions:

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat.  Add onions, bell peppers, garlic, chili powder, cumin, coriander, pepper flakes, Herbs de Provence, cayenne, and cook — stirring occasionally until the onion and pepper are softened and browning — approx 10 mins.  Increase the heat to med-high, add half of the pork belly, cook for 3 or 4 minutes breaking the meat up as you mix, then add the other half of the pork.  Stir for 3 to 4 more minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, bring to a boil then bring back down to a simmer and cook covered for one hour.  In the second hour, take the lid off but continue to simmer for 6o minutes.  Once it has simmered, take off of the heat and adjust seasoning.  If making a day or two in advance, let the chili cool to room temp before putting it in the fridge.  If serving right away, squeeze in a half to whole lime and mix throughout.