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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter at the Top Gun Abode

Our Easter Mantel  - ready for the spring show! photo converted into a water colour via Waterlogue App

Spring is definitely my favorite  season.  I love Easter as well.  I love the colours, the eggs, the rabbits and even the way Easter has become Christmas and Halloween-Light - filled with candy and presents.  To say it was a difficult winter for me is the understatement of the year.  So happy that the warmer light-filled days are upon us.  Our Easter season, coinciding with my job's Passover Holiday was a joyous two-week holiday affair.  I had three days off one week, with a quiet two days back at the office, then two  days off before returning to work.  This gave us a chance to do fun stuff as a family, attend egg hunts, dye Easter Eggs and get the house ready for a small Easter dinner gathering.
Dyeing Eggs
As Nate is now 4 and 1/2 (don't forget the half!) he's really at a fun age where he can appreciate and actively participate in the holiday traditions.  Dyeing the eggs is as much for for us as it is for him, although we had a couple of tearful fits because he wanted to make his eggs as beautiful as the drawings I did on my eggs.  I hard-boiled a few extra eggs for him so he could draw pretty flowers and rainbows on his eggs. 

Take My Picture! So I did, and then turned it into a pretty watercolour
 Always wanting his photo taken, the boy pulled up these decorative garden flowers so that I could snap his portrait.  How can you not oblige him?
Easter is now Christmas-Light
 It's going to be inevitable that as an only child, Nate will be a bit more spoiled than his friends.  Between the things we bought him, a paper rocket ship, puzzles, hulla hoops, candy, more candy and still more candy, Nate made out like a proverbial bandit.  A few times when he opened a gift he said he didn't want or like the item.  Ugh.  But then later, when he would actually see the toy, game, item, he'd be completely into gifts. Typical 4 and 1/2 year old!  The French Bingo game from Aunty Jenny was at first met with scorn.  Later in the day he was totally into it and we've played it several times a day since.  Boys...

A simple tablescape. White napkins tied with butcher's string, embellished with a sprig of flowering pear blossoms
Welcome to the table
Our dinner and the guests list was one of our best gatherings yet.  Second only to the first Christmas in the house.  It was a fun, nice, gentle yet lively gathering.  Nate and Baby Kristina, who's no longer a baby at age 2.  Our Church Friends and Family - Mike and Lise, Roberta (Kristina's mum), our Pastor, Francoise and his wife, Cindy.  Simple yet abundant food.  Good wines, great desserts.  Laughter and good conversations.  What more could you ask for?

Appetizers and Mezze

The cooking bug hasn't bite me in a few months, so my cooking mojo is seriously out of whack.  It was hard to motivate myself to find a menu that enthused me. I didn't want to cook too much or all day.  I didn't want to make anything to labor-intensive.  In short, I just don't want to cook these days.  But I found my inner chef and came up with a nice menu that not only pleased us all, was easy to execute, but gave me some nice photo ops and future blog posts! Plus Wegman's grocery store came to my aid with a nice cheese selection, good produce and an amazing truffle mousse pate.  Our dinner was a selection of crudites with store bought hummus doctored with olive oil and Z'tar seasoning; olives; pate; Beemster Gouda Cheese and my Balsamic Fig Jam and my friend, Casey of Salted Plate's, Honey Curry Mustard.  For dinner I made a "deconstructed" ravioli, with a Pea and Ricotta and Mint Puree (recipe will be posted soon!); stuffed leg of lamb (a pascal lamb!); Roasted Asparagus with Lemon Zest and Shaved Parmesan; guests brought side salads and desserts - Rhubarb Apple and Ginger Crisp and Apple Pie.  We ate like royalty without the multitude of servants needed to create such a feast!
Our Royal Feast
 The rebirth of the season, the religious philosophy I follow, and the renewed interest in doing things again is what I needed.  Now, if I can find the mojo for exercise of some sort, then I'd be back to my (younger/fitter) old self...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Flipagram Photo Stories from Easter Weekend

video
There were many good photos from the past Easter Weekend, but it gets so hard to shuffle through and choose only a few to post.  Flipagram to the rescue!  Along with the Pic Stitch, Waterlogue, OVER and other apps that I utilize on my iPhone, I'm using this clever app a lot these days.  You can choose a 15 or 30 second photo video, choose your music (which I just discovered a large foreign selection of great tunes) and make a video in minutes on your smart phone.  It helps me sort through photos, distilling the story I want to tell quickly.  Plus it gives me inspiration to do more blog posts without making me feel overwhelmed that I wind up not posting anything at all!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

BalMore, Hon


video 
A 30 second over-view of sights and tastes of Baltimore
Inner Harbor Visions
 A lot late in posting this - but we had a weekend trip, sans kiddo, to Baltimore, the last weekend of March: Friday to Sunday.  We managed to cram in a lot of fun stuff in 2 1/2 days and 2 nights, with many visits to the many sights, museums, and  restaurants that Bal'more has to offer.  I've made a few photo collages highlighting the best of what we say, ate, drank and did, along with a video that seems to be working!  We decided to go to Baltimore after a long story - a trip to San Francisco was a possibility but it got nixed. As we had a tentative list of sitters lined up for Nate, we decided on a weekend-getaway to someplace closer.  New York, DC, Lancaster, all were on the list.  Somehow, Baltimore felt right. Close enough with plenty to do but also very affordable and not too overwhelming options.  In short, someplace different than home and navigable. 
 
First up - we stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Inn 2920, in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore.  I highly recommend this sumptuous place. It's only 5 rooms in a gorgeously renovated home that is spacious, private and way cool!  The place is run by a couple, David and Warren. Beautifully appointed rooms and lounges/living rooms. You get fresh cookies, tea and treats every day, in addition to a home-cooked hot and lavish breakfast with coffee, tea and juices, each morning.  

A few steps away from the hotel, was Canton Square, a four block area surrounding a small square park, filled with bars, restaurants, take out places, liquor store, coffee shops and the best place of all, Dangerously Delicious Pies. It was dangerous because the pies were delicious. We went twice, and tried to go a third time to the pie shop, but it was closed for the evening, which was good and bad (good for my waist, bad for my tastes!)  Of the pies we ate, I had their apple pie twice.  At first I was overwhelmed with the choices and thought I was being boring by choosing apple pie.  To my thinking, if you can't do an apple pie right, you just shouldn't do pie at all! It's the most basic yet can be tricky to make well.  It's not just about the crust, though that is most of it.  DD's Pies have perfected crust AND the fillings.  This apple pie was sweet, tart, deep in flavor and one of the best pies I've ever eaten.  The apples almost tasted like they were caramelized first, like the apples from an apple tart tantin - firm w/a toothsome bite and a nice deep rich flavor.  

Liz tried a chocolate peanut butter pie, but it was too sweet for me.  The filling was fudgy and brownie-like.  When we hit the road, we took another slice of apple pie, a tart cherry crumb pie (which was also dynamite) and their house specialty, The Baltimore Bomb.  This pie is a classic "chess pie" filling, a thick custard-like filling that has pieces of Berger's Chocolate Chip cookies in the mix.  We didn't know what Berger's cookies were, we'll have to find them on our next visit.  The Baltimore Bomb was da bomb, but as with the chocolate peanut butter pie, a small taste was more than enough for me.  We split these pies three ways, sharing some with our sitter when we got home.  I liked the pies enough to take a drive down to Bawl'mer for a slice, on a whim!

On Saturday, we went to see the American Visionary Art Museum. This was highly recommended to us by a lot of folks.  Since it's an "outsider" art museum, it appealed to my love of  found art and street art.  The place didn't disappoint.  There were fun installations to see the moment we pulled up to the Federal Hill neighborhood where the museum is located.  The museum houses art in two buildings; a main building with three floors of art, a restaurant, offices, and a spiral staircase, all brimming with art and whimsy.  The second building, connected to the main building via an outdoor walk way and garden.  The 2nd bldg is newer, and is sort of "barn-like". It houses spill-over exhibitions, Kinetic Derby Sculpture Bikes, and the art camp classrooms.  I was giddy with the excitement of seeing so many wonderful and moving displays, reading the stories of the artists, and learning about the museum.
 
We ate quite a few good meals and enjoyed a lot of great beer and wine.  Two of our meals were in the hotel neighborhood of Canton.  Stopped by Mamas on the Half Shell for lunch. Had take out from a kebab house for a late night meal on our first night in Baltimore.  Saturday we found the famous Baltimore Sip and Bite for lunch (it was fine, as diner's go, but not blog worthy great like Diners Drive-Ins and Dives makes it out to be.)  The waitress was sporting a ubiquitous wash, set and tease-out modified bee-hive, ala the Baltimore 'Doo.  She could give a good dose of 'tude to any Philly waitress at Little Pete's, The Oregon, Penrose or Melrose diners for sure!
Saturday night we met up with a friend who lives in the Hampden Neighborhood.  We went to 13.5% Wine Bar, and proceeded to stay there for hours, imbibing some the best beers and wine Liz and I have had in many years.  We also indulged in a cheese selection, and house-made pizza.  The decor, ambiance, service were top notch.  It's the sort of laid back place with a soupcon of hipster coolness that I wish would come to Philly.  We saw folks of all ages and back grounds - older, younger, different nationalities, all enjoying this causal bistro with a  serious and unpretentious food and drink menu.  Our server, Joseph, was funny and engaging, laughing and joking with us all night.  We felt welcomed immediately and the place felt familiar all at once. The CHEERS Bar has nothing on this place as far as everyone knowing your name!
After our indulgent evening of fun, food, laughs, beers and wines, we went for a night cap to a newly opened Belgian Beer Hall, around the corner from 13.5% Wine Bar - De Kleine Duvel.  It appears to be a former VFW Hall, with a huge selection of bottle and draft Belgian and Belgian-style beers.  For the non-beer drinker, there is a nice liquor selection at the bar too.  Bullit Bourbon and a Beer seem to be the choice drinks in this town.  We enjoyed the beers so much, we had two - a Primus Haacht and a Palm.  I'll have to put these two on my radar in beer crazy Philadelphia. Naturally, the next morning, I awoke with a bit of a hang-over...small price to pay for a great night of carousing.

Baltimore lives up to it's moniker, Charm City.  I know that there are many places not as charming as the spots we visited.  Like my town of Philadelphia, there's a darker seedy side all around.  The upside of Baltimore is that there seems to be a genuine care to reinventing itself as the city's best version of what it once was and what it can become.

It's been 10 years since I was last in Baltimore.  This visit showed me how much has changed. I saw so many improvements in areas that I used to know. I also saw places, buildings, and whole swaths of newly created neighborhoods that never before existed.   I liked the variety of neighborhoods, the accessibility of each area.  I liked that there is a "realness" remaining in the areas.  There are lots of old bars alongside newer incarnations and revamped versions of old corner tap rooms.  Each neighbor hood that we visited seems to wear its old clothes proudly while sporting some new architectural garb.  I'm sure that all this gentrification has caused tensions, forcing those without means to  feel as though they now have even less of a say in the changes of their neighborhood.  With progress changes comes the problems of resentment.  We've always lived this way; we've always lived in this neighborhood.  It's a problem I know all too well having lived in Philadelphia, specifically South Philadelphia for over 44 years.  I see it in New Jersey now too.  Here's to hoping that Bal'more will continue to flourish, proving many more great sight-seeing adventures for all of us.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Firecracker Cherry Bourbon

At the last Collingswood Food Swappers event, on Saturday, March 8th, I made an infused bourbon exlir that everyone who tasted it raved about it!  The bourbon was infused with dried cherries and jalapenos then mixed with a  brown sugar simple syrup that was infused with cinnamon, cloves, candied ginger, more dried cherries, and star anise.  I strained the syrup and added it to the strained bourbon.  It wasn't hard to make nor did it take very long, other than planning ahead and getting the bourbon started with a bag of cherries and handful of very hot jalapeno pepper, for about a month of infusing.
My drink offerings in my "new" vintage tool caddy.
The idea for this flavoring came from a few sources.  Years ago we had a dear friend named, Sally Weida.  She loved having a jar of apricots and cherries soaked in either Southern Comfort or brandy.  For holidays, I made her a batch.  By the time you got to the end of the jar and ate the last of the apricots and cherries, you would be tipsy.  The fruit was potent!  Another friend, Jen, somehow though of the idea to put jalapenos into bourbon to give it a spicy kick.  I tucked this idea away into my brain to make into a cocktail.

When I dreamed up the idea to do our last swap as a Spirits and Cocktail Party food and beverage event, I knew I wanted to combine the two flavors into one delicious drink.  Taking the drink one step further, I started thinking about limoncello and other sweet cordials.  Reading  about other whiskey or bourbon inspired drinks then lead me to a story about a home-made Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey concoction.  Hence the name of my drink, Firecracker Cherry Bourbon.  A new drink is born! 

The bottles I bought were from SpecialtyBottles.com, the vintage style apothecary bottle, 8.5 ounces (which later I realized was TOO BIG!), along with plastic topper cork stoppers. To add to the vintage look I printed my labels on round craft paper labels from AVERY.  I also made ingredient tag labels which I tied to the bottles.  One final touch was using the plastic protector toppers that are slipped onto the bottles tops then shrink wrapped closed using a hair dryer.

This was a rather fancy and expensive beverage swap item.  I'm not sure of the final cost, but I'm thinking these cost me about $5 a bottle once I was done.  Would I do it again? Yes. But next time, I'll think about ways I can cut back on the expenses and do this in larger quantities.  As I was making the final product, I didn't have enough of the mixture to fill all 15 of my bottles and have a sampling bottle.  I had to make more syrup; I had started out with about 3-4 cups of sugar/water.  I also needed more bourbon.  Jack Daniels to the rescue! I sacrificed my stash of Jack to add to the mix.  The other expense was dried cherries.  These are not cheap.  This may become one of my signature drinks though I'm inclined to keep this as a very special give-away.

To make this yourself, you will need the following ingredients and items.  It will take about a month for the flavors of the cherries and jalapenos to infuse into the bourbon/whiskey.  The syrup can me made the day before and then added to the bourbon.  I found that once the simple syrup was added to the bourbon, it needs to be refrigerated and used within 2 months.  The drink can be enjoyed as is, served cold, or over ice, or with a spritz of seltzer added.  My friend, Leanne Lindsay of Tinsel and Tine said it was a powerful elixir.  I think most people who sampled it would agree.  I even had some people comment that it was one of the best things they ever imbibed.  I'm not exaggerating.  Maybe they were but who am I to complain?!

Firecracker Cherry Bourbon Ingredients:
Step 1 Ingredients:
  • 1.75 Liter Bottle of inexpensive Bourbon or Whiskey (don't use the really good stuff, as you're adding flavoring to it. For a fun read on "Low-Shelf" brands, check out this link here!)
  • 2 Cups Unsweetened Dried Cherries
  • 2 - 3 Jalapeno Peppers - cut into strips.  For spicy flavor, keep the ribs and seeds in; for milder flavor, remove the ribs and seeds
  • Large Glass Jar - about 2 quart size or larger with a tight fitting lid

Step 2 Ingredients:
  • 1/2 Cup Candied Ginger Pieces - kept whole
  • 5 Cinnamon Sticks
  • 5 Star Anise Seeds - in their star-shapped pods
  • 1 Tablespoon Whole Cloves
  • 1/2 Cup Dried Cherries
  • 3 Cups Organic Cane Sugar or Turbinado Sugar
  • 3 Cups Cold Water
  • 3 or 4 Quart Sauce Pot
  • Spatula
  • Strainer
  • 1 Gallon Container
  • 1 Funnel or Measuring cup to pour into bottles
  • 12 - 6 ounce Glass Bottles, with stoppers to decant into

Directions:
  1. Add the dried cherries to the bottom of a clean, large glass jar. Add in the cleaned and sliced jalapeno peppers.  If you want a really spicy drink, you can leave the seeds and ribs on the jalapenos. For a milder drink, remove the seeds and ribs.  Work carefully with the jalapenos, and either wear food safety gloves or wash your hands immediately in cool water with a lot of soap after having handled the peppers.  Carefully pour in the 1.75 liter bottle of bourbon over the cherries and peppers.  Put the lid on the jar and put the jar in a cool dark place.  
  2. After about a week, check on the bourbon. The cherries will have plumped up and the jalapenos will appear to have pickled.  You can remove the jalapenos at this point, or keep them in the bourbon for another week.  In either case, remove the jalapenos after 2 weeks, as they will have given off a lot of their flavor and heat.  Reserve the "pickled" jalapenos for some other use, such as using in a corn bread or in salsas.  The jalapenos will be potent with booze so use them carefully!
  3. Let the cherries steep in the bourbon for up to 1 month, then strain the bourbon into another clean glass jar through a fine mesh strainer.  Reserve the bourbon macerated cherries for some other use, such as cocktails, cakes, in a pie filling, you name it. These too will be powerfully potent, so don't feed them to children or anyone who can't have alcohol. 
  4. Once the bourbon has steeped for a month it's time to make the simple syrup.  In a 3 or 4 quart sauce pot add in the 3 cups of sugar and 3 cups of water.  To this add the candied ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise seeds and whole cloves.  Also add in a new batch of dried cherries.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.  You want to dissolve the sugar into the water and let the spices steep into the syrup, flavoring the syrup as it cooks and then cools.  
  5.  Keep the mixture at a bare simmer for 1 hour to infuse it with the spices.  Remove from the heat and let cool with the spices still in the syrup. Once the mixture is cool, strain it carefully through a fine mesh strainer twice, to remove all the spices and any sediment.  Discard the spice and if you are so inclined, you can re-use the dried cherries, but strain them from the final product.
  6. Pour the flavored syrup into a large glass jar or container, about a gallon sized jar will be good.  Pour in the infused and strained bourbon. Gentle stir the mixture to combine then decant it into smaller clean bottles.  Seal and refrigerate.  Serve cold. Mixture will keep for 2 months, refrigerated.
  7. Makes 1 dozen 6 ounce portions, give or take...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spirited Swap at The Factory

The Factory - interior and exterior views
On Saturday evening, March 8th, Collingswood Food Swappers held a Spirits and Cocktail swap at The Factory.  It was our 5th event since the inception of the group.  All of the swaps have been successful, but this one was the largest attended and one of the best events we I have hosted. I say we, and it is a group effort, but in truth, I'm the Collingswood Food Swappers. Or I'm the face and coordinator of the group; the conduit if you will.  These events wouldn't happen without my organizing them.  However, they wouldn't be as much fun if I didn't have great people participating in the swaps along with gracious hosts to let us use their space for the events.  The Factory is the latest "destination space" for our event.  I hope to make this a reoccurring destination!


The Factory, located at 13 Fern Avenue, in Collingswood, is the home to the area's largest and most interesting collection of reclaimed and re-working machinery and manufacturing equipment.  The building is the home of the former  Collingswood Movie Theater.  The exterior facade, which fronts on Haddon Avenue, is a gloriously beautiful Neo-Classical Marquee, complete with cherubim, ornate cornices, serifs and pan-musical motifs.  The interior of the building, which is around the corner is  - a shell of a building that's been cleaned, gutted and outfitted into workshop, studio and machinery floor space filled with over $200,000 worth of the best of the 20th Century equipment for wood working, metal smithing and crafting.  There is also studio space for individual use, and an elevated area where bands can play and people can mingle. It is an ideal space for parties and events, provided you don't mind mingle amongst dust and machinery. 
My photo of the Collingswood Movie Theater Facade, with the addition of  our logo
I had the idea to have a swap at The Factory for months.  Rather than just wish on the idea, I reached out to the owner of The Factory, Tom Marchetty, and asked him if we could have our next event there. It turned out to be one of the best "asks" I've ever done.  The space was perfect for us.  It also turned out to be a Second Saturday Event Evening; a band, Kharma Train, was booked to play there, creating an instant party atmosphere for everyone who came to the swap, wandered into the space, or just came out to see what was going on for 2nd Saturday.  25 people signed up for the swap, and more people came out to see what we were up to and to learn about us.  People came to hear the band learned about food swaps.  Our already fun event became more festive thanks to the music and perhaps, because we were trading infused booze and home-brews.  
My set up of my offerings: Firecracker Cherry Bourbon
and for kicks, I also brought my mango salsa.
This happened just because I asked.  I didn't do much more than that.  Put a few words out there, made some suggestions and brought a bunch of cool people together to gather at a swap.  Fun. Food. Booze. Music.  It was the swap party to end all swaps.  People stayed well beyond our 2 hour swap time.  Now this is a big deal because most swaps last at most, 90 minutes.  You have an hour of mingling and sampling; the swap part lasts at about 20 minutes.  Since people were having so much fun enjoying Kharma Train's music (the band was great and the lead singer has a great set of lungs - a singer with real chops and talent), the party just kept on going.  I won't say people were tipsy but it didn't hurt that we were trading home-brews, micro brews, home-made Kaluha, Amaretto, and my Firecracker Cherry Bourbon.  It definitely aided in making the party a bit more festive for all of us.  I made myself leave at 9 so that I could get home to Liz and Nate.
All ego aside, I really do think that the people who come to Collingswood Food Swappers' events are the best group.  Returning friends, new comers, and even "Pro-Swappers" all seem to bring out the best of themselves and their items.  I see that people put effort into their food and beverages as well as their packaging and labels.  I'm a sucker for a well-packaged item, and I ask that people label their stuff.  If for no other reason than knowing who made what, and what's in it.  I've picked up stuff from other swaps where it wasn't labeled.  I remembered what the item was, but after having it for a day or two, I couldn't or didn't know who made it.  I wanted to thank them or write about the foodstuff and couldn't as I didn't know who to mention.  So, I ask people to think about labels.  It's important to say who you are and promote yourself.  
As this swap was billed as a Spirits and Cocktails Swap, people pulled out all the stops with their boozy  and cocktail party nibble creations.  There were several home-brews, all of which are scrumptious.  Two cakes made with either Gin as a Gimlet Cake, or a Kracken Rum Cake, both made by Melissa W. of Cup Cake Friday Project.  I met Melissa at the January Swap in Philadelphia. Turns out she's one of the "Pro-Swappers" who I remember from my first swap I attended last April.  It also turns out she's friends with my friends, Robb and Eric.  Small swapping world!  

The Spoils of my Swap - all wonderful!

I came home with a plethora of goods.  The aforementioned home brews and a few micro brews.  My friend, Kate's, spicy and sweet peanut brittle. Her husband's good beer (with fun and geekily wonderful Q-Tag labels, that take you to the recipe when read on your phone's Q-Reader app).  Spicy Gingery Mixed Nuts.  Karin S's Maple Pecan Bourbon.  I had the pleasure of meeting Karin at the Philly Swappers event in January as well.  I was so touched that she and her friend, Jill, came over from the City to join in our event.  

Robb and Eric brought a 5 berry pie.  It might not have been filled with booze but it sure was good.  Suzanne, a friend and neighbor and one of my first Collingswood Friends who I met through an acquaintance long before we met in person brought an ancient Roman Wine.  The recipe was ancient, not her wine!

Other people I met and traded goods with were, Randi and John, who brought home made and timely, hamentashen and a nice selection of micro-brews. Vasilly and his wife, with beer and infused vodka drinks.  Linda and her amaretto.  Lesly and her husband's Cucumber Mint Lemonade with Tito Vodka.  And my friend, Lori, of the Mardi Gras party fame, with her very popular and gorgeously bottled home-made Kahlua.  

The next swap I'll be attending is the Philly Swappers Swap, again at the Reading Terminal Market, in April.  One year exactly since the very first swap I ever attended.  Which means OUR Group will be celebrating our first year anniversary in May.  A YEAR! 5 Events.  Countless jars of salsas, jams, pickles, and now booze.  It's a milestone.  To commemorate our turning one, I'm working on plans for the big event.  Another swap with a theme.  Keeping it interesting and diverse.  Stay tuned and follow us on Facebook! http://Facebook.com/CollingswoodFoodSwappers