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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Christmas in July at The Top Gun Abode

Christmas in July is a novelty that I truly love.  It's not for the QVC shopping aspect, though I do tend to watch the home shopping network more fervently during this time frame, it's because there's something a bit wacky and wild about celebrating a winter holiday in the middle of summer.  With this in mind, I was inspired to throw a theme party at our house this past weekend - a Christmas in July fete. All it takes for me is one small idea and I can grow the biggest event out of it.  In two weeks time, we sent out invitations, planned the menu, shopped, cooked and decorated for our party.  It was one of the more fun and original ideas for a party that we've had in many years.  It was also a great success, as we not only made it a bit of a pot-luck dinner, but we also asked our guest to bring a donation for a food bank and/or a charity that gives toys to children throughout the year. 

Our family-friendly affair brought out a lot of kids.  Families from our circle of Opera Moms, to the families we have made into our village in Collingswood.  I loved seeing the children who had never before met play with each other, make new connections and just run with wild abandon.  I like to say that I know a party at our house is a success when I find the kids in the area behind our garage digging in the dirt and with faces and bodies covered in so much dirt that they look like they are young chimney sweepers!  The kids played, ran, dug and had a ton of fun.  When it came time to straighten up Nate's room, I found crumbs and sprinkles in his bed! The kids had FUN!

Our adult friends enjoyed themselves too.  I set out a feast for the occasion - cooking all night for the meal.  Cider brine roasted turkey; Coca Cola braised ham; sweet potatoes marshmallows; string beans with sauteed peppers and onions; cucumber salad; home-made guacamole. Guests brought watermelon medley; panzanella salads; ramen noodle salads; home-made tortillas and sweet empanadas.  I made a huge pitcher of 100% proof Southern Comfort Manhattans and 3 gallons of slamming red wine, brandy and fruit sangria (I'll be drinking this for weeks, there is so much left!)   Looks like enough for another get-together will have to be organized!

While I enjoyed myself very much, it was a lot of hard work for 3 days straight. Shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating the house with holiday lights and garb.  Then a full day of undoing it all and putting all the stuff away.  I am filled with awe at our friends' generosity.  So many people, from so many various aspects of our worlds came over to hang out and to donate to our charities.  We are donating the food to The Food Bank of South Jersey.  I think we collected over 200 pounds of food to bring to them! The toys will go to PegsPresents, a charity run by my friend, Lee Romano. She and her husband, Andrew, bring gifts, toys, gift baskets to kids who live in shelters.  They do this periodically throughout the year, not just at Christmas.  We received great things, games, puzzles, a skateboard! I know that there will be many happy kids and well-fed folks thanks to my friends!

I think the above photo captures the spirit of the day and will become a classic keeper photo.  The blending of our worlds with kids being the focal point of our lives.  Merry Christmas!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Guest Posting for Diner en Blanc Philadelphia

 I've been asked to do a guest post for Diner en Blanc Philadelphia.  The post is now up - so I'm redirecting your attention to their blog for today.  Take a gander! I"m so excited!  And I'll be writing, tweeting, filming lots about this year's event, which will take place on Thursday, August 21st.  I'm a table leader this year, so while I still won't have any idea about the secret location, I'll have tons of inside scoop on the party once it happens!  Stay tuned!

My guest post - all about solving the mystery of the secret location:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer Cocktails with Bourbon, Rye or Whiskey

I'll blame it on my obsession with Mad Men, the 1960's period piece television series on AMC, that has sparked my interest in drinking "brown" liquors.  Jack and Jim were my previous drinking buddies, but now, well, I've moved uptown to a decidedly higher drinking caliber of spirits.  

At a dinner out at The Farm and The Fisherman Tavern, in Marlton, NJ, I was introduced to a craft version of sweet vermouth, called Antica.  It was used in a small batch bourbon Manhattan, and the drink went down so quickly, I could have easily had a second.  I went to the liquor store to find the vermouth and a better bourbon, but Antica is a difficult vermouth to find.  Instead, my friend, Steven, suggested that I try Noilly Prat vermouth.  He also showed me a decent, not too expensive small-batch rye whiskey called Bulleit.  It's one with which I'm familiar amoung the top shelf brands.  Why have I been slumming it with the commoners when there's been this great tasting rye to imbibe?  Using quality ingredients are making my Manhattan's smoother and in some ways, richer tasting.  Inspired by my better booze, I also stepped up my bitters and cherry selections, purchasing Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters - a pricey $15 for a wee bottle, along with a jar of Italian wild cherries in heavy syrup to really "kick it up a notch." Also not a cheap purchase.  These are not your grocery store mixers that's for sure.  It may be an expensive drink but it was money well spent. My wallet doesn't agree but perhaps my liver will forgive me...

I could drink a Manhattan every day, and I practically have this summer.  I've already gone through my first bottle of Bulleit.  I also created another summer cocktail, a newer more decadent version of sangria, made with muddled fruits, lemonade and club soda.  Whoa! Hold onto your fedora folks! This is a summer drink to end all summer drinks.  Whipped together on a whim, I have found a twist on a perennial favorite.  It's not so much a recipe as it is an idea.  Use what you have but use the best that you can find, oranges, limes, lemons, home-made or good maraschino cherries, lemonade, bourbon, whiskey or rye, good vermouth and a splash of club soda.  Enjoy, but not too much! You don't want to become a Don Drapper drunk.

Bulleit Rye Whiskey Sangria Ingredients - Makes 2 Cocktails
  • 1 Orange - Sliced and  Juiced/Muddled
  • 1 Lemon - Sliced and Juiced/Muddled
  • 1 Lime - Sliced and Juiced/Muddled
  • 2 Cocktail Maraschino Cherries
  • 1 Tablespoon  Maraschino Cherry Juice/Syrup
  • Shaker Glass filled with Crushed Ice
  • 2-3 Dashes of Bitters
  • 3 Ounces Quality Bourbon, Rye or Whiskey
  • 1 Ounce Quality Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 Ounces Lemonade
  • Splash of Club Soda
  • Ice and Cherries for Garnishment/Serving
  • Cocktail Shaker and Strainer
  • Wooden Spoon or Cocktail Muddler

  1. Wash and prepare citrus fruits.  Slice the orange, lemon and lime in half and squeeze the juices into a cocktail shaker.  Reserve half of each juiced citrus, and slice into rounds.  Add the citrus rinds into the shaker and muddle the citrus with handle of a wooden spoon or a cocktail muddler.  
  2. To this mixture, add in the cocktail cherries and syrup, 2 or 3 dashes of bitters, and the bourbon/rye/whiskey, vermouth and lemonade.  
  3. Put the top on the shaker, and shake thoroughly to combine and chill. 
  4. Pour drinks into rocks or short, heavy bottomed glasses filled with a few ice cubes and add in a splash of club soda to each glass.  Garnish with a cocktail cherry if desired.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kale Basil Parsley and Mint Pesto

Without realizing it this post is my 500th blog post.  Technically it's really not.  I say that because 1) I had an older blog for a year prior to starting The Bicycle-Chef.   Some of those early recipe blog posts have migrated over to here. 2) I've added and deleted posts from this blog; I'm not sure how many posts I've actually written.  Rather than wait weeks and try to roll out a big hoopla post, replete with videos, photo montages and self-congratulatory back pats, I'll post this lovely recipe. Video highlights can always be done at a later date!

Onto recipe writing.  For a recent food swap I attended with The South Jersey Food Swappers, I made a batch of pesto, using kale as the basis for the pesto.  I had kale pesto at a food swap a year ago and I was so taken with it I knew I wanted to make it.  It took me a year but the wait was worth it!  I adapt things all the time, tossing ingredients in until they "taste right" to me.  My friend, Jamie Lynn, made the original batch of Kale Pesto.  I'm not sure what all she had in hers, maybe some basil; perhaps a bit of cheese; certainly olive oil.  I figured I'd give this a whirl and see how it turned out. Making pesto with kale couldn't be any harder than making it with a variety of herbs, including the all-important basil.

I made ten 4 ounce jars for the swap, and one 6 ounce jar for sampling.  My "actual" recipe would therefore make 5 to 6 cups of pesto.  I'll try to cut this down to a more manageable amount for home use - 2 cups max.  It's all about handfuls of ingredients; blanching the kale to tame the bite; and whizzing everything in a food processor to get it lusciously smooth.  This pesto was: Blanched kale and blanched garlic; basil, parsley, mint, toasted walnuts, olive oil, and Pecorino Romano cheese (it's cheaper than Parmesan), salt and pepper.  The kale helps stretch the pesto and adds a healthy veg to the mix.  Using parsley and mint help with the taste, adding in a sweeter element to work with the basil.  I picked walnuts instead of pine nuts because they are less expensive and because they have a softer taste than the bitter edge that pine nuts can sometimes add.  The recipe can be worked to suit your tastes and needs. 

Kale Basil Parsley and Mint Pesto Ingredients:
  • 2-3 Cups (loosely packed; about 1 small/medium bunch) Fresh Kale Leaves - cleaned, de-stemmed of woody/tough center rib
  • 1 Bunch Basil (about 1 cup loosely packed)- cleaned and leaves removed from stems
  • 1/2 Cup Parsley - cleaned and stems removed
  • 1/4 to 1/2 Cup Fresh Mint Leaves - cleaned and leaves removed from stems
  • 2 - 3 Garlic Cloves - peeled
  • 1/2 to 3/4 Cup Olive Oil - or more as needed
  • 1/4 Cup Toasted Walnuts
    Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper - to taste
    1/2 Cup Grated Cheese - such as Parmesan, Locatelli or Pecorino Romano

Equipment Needed:
  • Food Processor or Blender
  • Rubber Spatula
  • small sauce pot and sieve or fine mesh strainer
1. Clean the kale, basil, parsley and mint Set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of  water to a rolling boil.  Add in a tablespoon of salt.  Next, add in the de-stemmed kale leaves and cook for 5 minutes.  Add in the garlic after 5 minutes and cook for 1 minute more.

3.  Put the basil leaves, parsley and mint into a colander and then drain the blanched kale and garlic leaves in that same colander, pouring the hot  water over the herb leaves.  Drain, and then immediately run cold water over everything to stop the cooking process.  Squeeze the kale and herbs dry, wringing out as much water as possible.

4. Add the blanched kale, garlic and herbs, basil and parsley,  into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment or into a large/heavy duty blender.  Pulse a few times to get the leaves to start forming a paste. Keep the the lid on the blender or food processor and the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil in a slow stream through the pin-hole or removable lid of the blender or food processor.  The mixture should form a paste.  If need be, turn off the machine, and scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Replace lid and turn the machine back on and continue adding in the oil.  The mixture should be thick, not runny, but should also be a bit loose. 

5. Scrap down the sides of the work bowl or blender and add in the walnuts, then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pulse a few more times to grind the nuts.  Lastly, add in the cheese and pulse a few more times.  Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
6. Store the pesto tightly covered and refrigerated.  Pesto without the cheese added to it can be frozen for up to 3 months.  This pesto will keep, refrigerated, for up to 1 week.  Adding the kale to it will help maintain its intense green colour. Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups.   

Add more of each, kale, basil, parsley, mint, oil, as needed.  My recipes, as usual, are a casual affair.  I usually toss in ingredients until I think they are where I want them to be!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Food Finds: More Winning Meals in Las Vegas

You would be hard pressed to find a bad meal in Las Vegas.  Anything is possible but this is indeed an eating town.  Finding "cheap" eats is another adventure altogether not just off the beaten path or outside of the strip.  As I wrote in my previous post, we had a more than enjoyable light lunch on our first foray onto the Strip.  Our next few meals in the heart and hotels of Las Vegas would prove to be winners as well.  
Breakfast on the Strip: A quiet breakfast in a subdued beautifully lit "created" Italian street scene in the lower level of the Venetian Hotel.  Meandering into the Venetian Hotel, up, down, across, you're not sure if you're in an M.C. Escher drawing or some Bizarre Disney Land experiment.  The Venetian offers many lovely zen-like places of calm in an otherwise town of  pulsating madness.  

We hit up Caffe Zefferino for a quiet breakfast.  It felt very authentic.  The mood lighting, the air quality (smoke free!) and the pretty surroundings, with the calls of the Gondoliers in the distance truly put us in a happy place.  Breakfast was more American style in that the portions were large and tasty.  Coffee, well, stick to Starbucks, but for a good breakfast that won't hurt your wallet and will keep you going well past lunch, this is a place to fill up!

Dinner on the Strip: We had fun meal at The Yard House at the LINQ along the QUAD corridor between The Flamingo Hotel and Harrahs.  I was skeptical at first, not wanting to dine at yet another knock-off bar filled with penis balloon toting bachelorettes (there were quite a few, wearing sashes and tiaras no less); or muscle headed bachelors sporting foot long dong bong vuvuzela shaped drinking vessels strung around their necks (way more than a few of these all over the place). 

The Yard House is a multilevel, fine pub grub dining and drinking destination in the heart of what is to my eyes and ears, a busy, night club, food club, shopping arena.  It was too dark for food photos so none to share.  I had the first of several street food fusion meals.  Korean meets Mexican style tacos.  Short Ribs slowly cooked until meltingly tender.  Piquant Mexican Rice.  Luscious Beans.  And an East-Coast Centric Micro Brew Draft Beer List - which really surprised me.  I opted for some North East Coast brews. If you find yourself in Las Vegas, the street known as the QUAD is worth a look-see and The Yard House is well worth a stop for a nibble and a slosh!

Il Fornaio at the New York New York Hotel: Head here for the sheer audacity of doing the entire NY skyline, from The Statue of Liberty, all the important iconic sky scrappers to a miniature Brooklyn bridge walkway.  Whether or not you do the roller coaster that winds its way around and through the buildings is up to your and your nerves.  If you find yourself hungry and the Coney Island food court fare isn't for you (and it shouldn't be) walk through the casino floor and do yourself a favor and have a nice, calm, quiet meal in Il Fornaio Restaurant and Bakery.  Authentic, New York style, thin crust pizzas.  Decent wine by the glass selections.  Good hearty bread with nice olive oil for dipping. If you aren't starving, you and your dining companion can share a salad and a pizza and feel satisfied for under $50! 

Off the Strip and way way away from the casinos:  If you are adventurous, not into the crowds and hubbub of Vegas, in any of the areas like the main strip, downtown near the Stratosphere, or in Old Las Vegas in the Old Downtown now known as The Fremont Street Experience, I have some DYNAMITE Places to suggest.  You'll need a car or be willing to pay a lot for taxi rides. 

District One LV - off the beaten path, in one of the many areas of the China/Asia Town district of Las Vegas, there are dozens of places to dine.  I can't exactly remember how we stumbled into this place. I think we were googling one place, and found three others and then practically threw a dart at a map and here is where we landed.  District One LV is a brand new Vietnamese Seafood and fusion bar and restaurant.  We hit on the hip insider's spot before the hip insiders found this place and ruined it!  Uber cool, the place has a North West Street Food and Pho vibe going on in here.  Lots of street food and other Asian food fusion influences happening on the menu.  If only we had time to eat more and more often...

Our meals were very memorable.  Fresh Shrimp Spring Rolls in delicate cellophane rice paper wrappings.  Inside was a crunchy center that contrasted nicely with the tender bite of the basil leaves and shrimp. Steamed Edamame pods topped with a stir fry of Szechuan peppers, garlic and sesame oil.  More addictive than potato chips.  Rachel enjoyed a platter of Vietnamese pork offerings - chops, sausages; veggies, and broken rice topped with a poached egg.  Break the egg over the rice, pour on the Nam Ploc vinegar and you create a succulent sauce for the meal.  I had a Korean Fried Cornish Hen with Chinese 5 Spice, along with the steamed broken rice.  I think Rachel got the velvet box meal here but mine was very good.  After a few wheat style summer ales and even the fish heads would have seem like a gold-plated meal to me.  We ate until we were ready to burst and then took a few bites and sips more, rolling our way back to our car.  Happy, sated and delighted with our turn of luck at finding this true gem.  

Up a piece by the New Orleans Casino, in the shadow of the strip but several miles away, we discovered a fabulous Ethiopian restaurant called Abyssinia.  After our one and only night in a hotel dead smack in the heart of The Strip, at The Flamingo (the less said, the better...) we spent 3 nights at a time-share condo 4 miles outside of town.  We had a car, lots of guide books and ample time to find better food finds than what the management of corporate Las Vegas wants the tourists to find. After our amazing luck at District One LV, we weren't sure we could find another wonderful "ethnic" meal as cheap and plentiful.  How wrong we were.  I cannot find any decent Ethiopian places back home so it surprised me to find a large Ethiopian community in Las Vegas of all places.  We had a combination dinner of meat and vegetables, which was way more food than we could handle, even if I was famished.  Ground lamb; stewed lamb; chicken in spicy tomato flavors that I can't even begin to identify.  Goat. Lentils 2 ways; Collard Greens. Raw cabbage salad and stewed cabbage. All served on a platter of spongy bread called injera, along with a basket of additional bread.

Way off the Beaten Path: Henderson, Nevada: The Great Greek Mediterranean Grill.  As if the food finds weren't already superb, we found another buried treasure in the desert.  Rachel and I took a side trip to Nelson, Nevada, to visit an old gold mine and reclaimed town.  A post with those photos and stories will be forth coming.  After a few hours of photo taking we were hot, tired and ready for a proper meal in a cool spot. More googling and glances in my guide books led us to Henderson.  It's a town know for the famous Ethel M. Chocolate Factory (which we didn't see but I did load up on their chocolates at the airport shop); the town is also listed in my guides books as having more than a few great places to eat.  And away we went! 
In a strip mall shopping center we discovered The Great Greek Mediterranean Grill.  It is clean, lovely but looks like a take-out sandwich shop.  We were a tad skeptical but the aromas and platters of food all around us told us that we were about to strike it rich.  Our meals were out of this world.  Again, more authentic ethnic food, served up by some of the most handsome Greek gods.  Tender fresh hot  men pita; juicy plump grilled shrimp and chicken kebabs.  Fluffy rice pilaf; cool refreshing Greek salad; tangy tzatziki sauce.  I ate every drop of food in front of me and could have enjoyed more if there was room in my belly.  To think we almost passed up on this opportunity.

It was a quick trip filled with a lot of laughs and some amazing meals.  Vacations should be about enjoyment of the new found things.  Our trip to Las Vegas was unique as so much of our nearly 30 year friendship is.   Whatever brings to you to Las Vegas, convention, business, sin and pleasure, you won't be disappointed by the many authentic food finds if you just look beyond the glitz.