A Pleasant Little Memory | Un Café
I had no idea what I was ordering.
Alone at Charles de Gaulle, I just accomplished my first over-seas flight and was awaiting my traveling partners.
Burning eyes, jet-lagged and exhilarated, I walked into an airport café and felt the utmost independence. The only thing I knew to order was coffee, but how?In my mind it sounded okay, so “un café” it was.
I didn’t speak French, my sister only gave me a few phrases to remember before I left. “Je ne parle pas français,” being the one I took to heart.
So I had no idea what was being ordered, but I did know “café” to be slightly universal.
At 22, I still wasn’t a coffee connoisseur. All I knew of coffee was what my grandparents made at their house and what I had consumed to fuel late night study sessions. None of this coffee was extraordinary and I never enjoyed drinking it.
Alas, I felt that caffeine was what I needed to fuel my upcoming European adventure and to stay awake. Now safely in France, I was in the mood to celebrate. I had just overcome the fear of flight and was about to embarke on a European getaway with my sister — did I mention she was bringing her high school French students along too?
“See you in Paris,” she said as I was dropped off at Houston Hobby. I smiled, waved and felt sick to my stomach.
I boarded a plane, numbing myself to the fear that bubbled up inside. Thankfully, the kind woman sitting next to me didn’t mind me grabbing her hands on occasion when the plane hit pockets of turbulence (I cringe to this day thinking about it… I was THAT passenger).
Choosing the unknown.
Overcoming fear.“Un café” was placed on a single round metal table in a small espresso cup. Tiny silver spoon included. I looked down, saw the dark elixir and knew there was only one thing to do. Drink.
I drank it. No sugar. No cream. Just black.
It was hard not to shutter, but the bitter flavor was exhilarating. The warmth eased my tension of being alone in Europe.
I sat back in that cold metal chair. Opened a book and pretended to read.
Paris, I’m here.
Read more about brewing coffee at home in The Dallas Morning News. Click here for the full story.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Soup Sunday
Confession: I was once obsessed with canned soups.
Southwestern Chicken, Beef and Barley, Chicken and Stars, Creamy Potato—as a young adult I stocked my pantry like it was Y2K.
However, there was a turning point in my food story when I realized “I can make soup without a can.”
Quickly following this realization, I set one of my first cooking goals: learn how to make good soup.
My decision was supported by my then fiancé. He gifted me a soup cookbook, not only to be supportive, but also probably in hopes that he too could benefit from my drive.
Once married I began making soup weekly. A big batch was created on “Soup Sunday,” as I lovingly called it, and we ate it for lunches and dinners.
Slowly, I begin to deviate from recipes. At first it was minor tweaks: swapping out herbs, adjusting seasonings, omitting or adding ingredients. This worked for a while, but I wanted to cook without having to rely on a recipe.
Then, a realization. It was time to abandon the cookbook and make my own soup recipe. My first endeavor was chicken tortilla soup. At that moment I felt it was perfect, but later realized there was too much “stuff” going on in my bowl.
I went back to following recipes, but dived a little deeper and went for favorite chefs and trusted food resources—Julia Childs, Emeril Lagasse, Food52, Food and Wine Magazine.
After a few years of making soups (guided by recipes) with layers of flavor and good balance, I felt it was time, once again, to pursue my goal.
For the past few years, I have been at ease with soups, but that level of comfort has come through many trials and errors.
These recipes represent some of the lessons learned through my many soup adventures:
Shrimp and Leek Bread Soup (click here for recipe)
- some of the best soups are a mix of half-used ingredients from the pantry
- lemon zest is an easy way to brighten up a dish
Red Wine Beef Stew (click here for recipe)
- appreciate classic soups, they are combinations that just work
- browning meat adds layers of flavors that cannot be achieved any other way
Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Lentil Soup (click here for recipe)
- meat is not a necessity for hearty soup
- be creative and adventurous with toppings
Click here for more soup recipes and inspiration. Happy cooking!
This story was published in The Dallas Morning News in January 2016. Click here for the full story.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Melanzane alla Parmigiana
During my time in Italy I religiously journaled all happenings that my 22 year-old self felt needed preservation. One event in particular required five pages of storytelling and even a few glued in mementos – a weekend in Florence.
One moment from this Florentine excursion continues to play a role in my food story – the discovery of melanzane alla parmigiana.
It was hot and the evening light was beginning to illuminate the legendary city. Energetic and eager, three twenty-something girls stepped off the train; they finally made it to Florence. They realized, ever so quickly, that there were no medieval buildings to welcome them and the local shops were beginning to close.
We entered Florence through the wrong train stop.
Our distress transcended the language barrier that existed. It took but a moment for us to be rescued by a local Florentine. She convinced the owner of a closed tabacchi store to reopen for use of its phone. Within minutes our trio was taxied away to the old city.
We arrived at our destination, 15 minutes and 11 euros poorer.
It was well past dinner time when we arrived at the comfortable Pension Hotel Ferretti. We were starving. With a few dining options suggested by Herman, a hotel worker, we began our search for La Spada. After a few missed turns and repeated piazza circling, we made it.
That evening we engaged in conversation with the fellow diners and owner over a meal of ravioli and roasted pork chops. Our time at La Spada ended with tiramisu on the house and an invitation to dine again the following day at the ristorante rosticceria.
It was like the Queen invited us to dinner. Of course we would come back.
After a whirlwind day of tourism, dinner was on our minds. Once again, we found ourselves at our favorite rosticceria.
Still feeding off the intoxicating and empowering Renaissance energy of Florence, I chose a dish I couldn’t even translate: melanzane alla parmigiana. Laura, the waitress, said I wouldn’t be disappointed.
This blind decision has become one of the best food decisions of my life.
Perhaps it was youth and the inexplicable adventurous spirit found when abroad, or maybe I was just incredibly hungry, but this meal has become a mile-marker in my love of food. The flavors were unlike anything I had tasted before. The texture was unique and addictive. I was now ready to see food through eyes of one who appreciates ingredients and flavors.
I found food in Florence – a city that had tantalized me since I first learned of Botticelli, the Duomo and David.
For three years, I sought after this meal. American Restaurants gave me no hope. I was forced to recreate it in my own kitchen.
With the help of Molto Mario and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking I struck gold. I finally brought Florence and eggplant parmesan into my kitchen, thanks to Mario and Marcella.
The lovely eggplant is roasted in olive oil and baked, not battered and fried. There is no plate of noodles resting gently under a fried vegetable, instead it is baked with tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella.
Upon a return trip to Italy, La Spada and its melanzane alla parmigiana was on my list of things to experience in Florence.
The city had not changed and my tourist schedule hadn’t either. The first day was packed with cappuccini, museum visits, shopping and, of course, food.
For years I had built up the legend of La Spada and its eggplant parmesan to my husband. He was on board, ready to try the worlds best, most life changing eggplant dish.
With energy and excitement, we arrived during the Italian dining hour ready to feast. I ordered the treasured eggplant parmesan.
“Mi dispace, signora.”
The eggplant parmesan was already sold out.
A Pleasant Little Memory | A Thanksgiving Inheritance
For my family there are two dishes that speak across more than a century of family Thanksgiving gatherings: Onion Slaw and Thanksgiving Noodles. It is the latter recipe where my heart finds some of my most treasured memories. For us, a good supply of noodles is the foundation to a successful Thanksgiving holiday.
While Granny was still living and able, she would prepare the egg and baking powder noodles the week before the holiday. This time-honored process felt ritualistic because the family would gather at her home as she prepared, rolled and cut the dough to make the perfect noodle.
Over the course of time, I stopped chasing cousins to stand and watch. I was mesmerized. The older I became the more I longed to assist her. I wanted to learn. The only aspect of this ritual that ever changed was her aging hands. When I finally began to prep the noodles alongside her I experienced another dimension to my grandmother. It was the only time my Granny ever became a critic. “The dough needs to be rolled thinner,” she would say. She was territorial over the process and the end product. Even to this day I find my ways and noodles wanting.
On Thanksgiving Day, Granny could be found with apron on and wooden spoon in hand, standing guard over the stovetop where steam billowed and light radiated. Here she stood, stirring continually the homemade noodles, broth from an ‘old hen’, sticks of butter and plenty of salt; here she would remain, stirring to prevent the sin of sticking. When the noodles were just right, soft with no bite, then the Thanksgiving meal could begin.
Among the cousins it was a race to acquire the first plate of noodles, as well as the first second-helping of noodles. With a plate in hand and a spoonful (or two) of noodles that easily spread across the plate, Thanksgiving truly commenced. Add the buttery mashed potatoes, dried out turkey and cornbread dressing and the meal was perfect.
This will be the second Thanksgiving that Granny is not at her post. She was the matriarch of Thanksgiving and the holiday doesn’t feel the same without her. This year, when I stand over the simmering broth and let the steam wash over my face, my heart will hurt because she’s not there.
However, she has given our family an inheritance — a family recipe. What did Granny ponder when she stood stirring? Did she think about Thanksgivings past and the noodles that her mother made and noodles that her grandmother made? Was it bittersweet for her too?
Today, I give thanks, many thanks for my freedom, my country and my family. My family, once so close in distance is now scattered. My family, bonded through blood but most importantly love and memories. We are older now, our family has grown and there are times when Thanksgiving cannot be spent together. However, as long as there is someone standing guard at the stove top, stirring a batch of noodles and thinking of Thanksgivings past, we will all be together once more at Granny’s house.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Tennessee Summers
Fourteen hours later, we start rolling up a tree-covered, large hill in east Tennessee. All five of us are scrunched into a brown 1984 Caprice Classic and are in need of fresh air. We’ve made it. Slowly, out of the small brown house, come two loving souls. Their smiles are wide and their hugs even wider. It’s summer and it’s time to spend our annual week at Granny and Papa’s.
After a long embrace from my grandparents, I set off. I would enter the humble home by pulling hard on the sliding glass door and then step directly into the kitchen. Once inside, it hit me immediately: the smell of simmering meat and tomato sauce, the sound of boiling noodles, and the heat of toasting garlic bread. The long table too small for their kitchen would spill into the living room. It was set to sit an army of loved ones.
I had eagerly anticipated this meal the entire road trip from Oklahoma. I was equally excited for Granny’s stocked pantry. Just to make sure my favorites were awaiting me, I would do a brief inventory. First, the small cabinet under the stove – Captain Crunch Berries. Next, the freezer – Blue Bell Dreamsicles. Lastly, the stand-alone dishwasher – IBC Root Beer. She always had it perfect. All my needs were met.
I don’t recall the occurrence between arrival and dinner; it probably involved a game or two of Ping-Pong with my cousins in the basement. When it was time for supper, we would all sit down, hold hands, and Papa, the gentle giant, would say grace. Papa, his tall, large frame would fill the head of the table. He would eat slowly, talk frequently, and zero in on us with his piercing blue eyes. Granny would be next to him, with one elbow on the table and eating with the other. I don’t recall topics of conversations, only faces and moments frozen into still-framed pictures – images of loved ones past, images of loved ones far removed, images of my east Tennessee family – where half my heritage lies.
When I visit these memories of summers past, my heart swells because the wild blackberries are just as sweet, the fireflies just as bright, and the air just as humid. Nothing changes – the cucumbers in the garden, hydrangeas in the front yard, chairs on the back patio and Ping-Pong in the basement. Most of all, I remember the unconditional love of my grandparents and Granny’s spaghetti and meat sauce.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Dinner Divas
After four years of monthly gatherings, we all agree that it was a bad decision to name our monthly supper club Dinner Divas. However, at the time of its inception, I was eager to start a supper club and simply reused a name of a previous dinner group that had fizzled out. Thus the subject of the first invite was, regrettably, Dinner Divas.
Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon was selected as the inaugural dinner and on that cold November afternoon my home was engulfed by the rich and buttery flavors of slowly braised beef, onions, mushrooms and hearty red wine. It was the perfect way to welcome new and old friends through a classic meal that’s both comforting and memorable. My anticipation for my guests matched my anticipation for dinner. It was on this night that a ritual of dining and sharing commenced. The evening proved to be just as memorable as the quintessential dish. It was the first of many gatherings.
It was a mix of ladies who first came to eat dinner at my house four years ago– some were strangers, some were best friends, some were acquaintances. Since that first evening, we have continually had dinner once a month for four years. What has kept us together, and what drives us every month to set a date to dine, is that we have come to need one another. We have developed into a group of eight women who experience life together.
For us though, the food isn’t the highlight of our gatherings. Whether the meal is homemade or take-out; or we are at a home or restaurant, our gatherings are meaningful because we want to be there. By breaking bread together we have made ourselves vulnerable and open with one another. With every dish eaten– nachos, tapas, pizza, soup, flatbreads– we create a stronger bond. These dinners have seen us celebrate new jobs, pregnancies and personal successes. They have also witnessed tears over the loss of loved ones, miscarriages, impending medical procedures and heartache. We have become a group of women, all very different, who need one another, who pray for one another, who rely on one another.
There is no end in sight for the Dinner Divas. Our monthly get-togethers only get better.
Relationships that form around food and the consumption of food are powerful. It is the kinesthetic, sense arousing, body nourishing process of eating that makes this true. When eating, the body is engaged to be nourished and so is the soul. Our culture, unfortunately, misses out on this opportunity for enrichment because we seek instant gratification, quick meals and isolated friendships.
Relationships take time and so should meals. Let the moments spent around a table with strangers or loved ones be powerful. Engage yourself to not only benefit from the gathering, but also be willing to enrich others. Make yourself vulnerable and dine with expectation that you will walk away having gained a nourished relationship and a nourished body.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Independence Day
Hosting a Fourth of July celebration is something new for me. I’ve always wanted to throw an Independence Day celebration and decided that this was the year to attempt it.
Our celebration was not the standard American hot dog and hamburger grill-out, where the hosts do all the work and the guests simply arrive and eat. Instead, it was a time to gather with dear friends to spend time and cook together.
The menu was planned about three days before the gathering. It takes time to peruse recipes and make the final decisions on what dishes pair well together. I wanted the food for this get-together to not only have an American spirit, but also to embody non-traditional flavors. Also, my goal was to use only new recipes. I find that there is no better time to try new recipes than on dinner guests. It makes me feel like I’m living on the edge.
There was some work to do before the festivities could begin. We tried to make the preparations, as much as we could, a family affair. Little paws helped where they could, like grocery shopping and baking a cake. For the most part though, Randy and I split responsibilities and tackled them individually, but side by side.
By the time our friends arrived at 3:30 pm everything for the dinner was done; the pork shoulder was smoking and the drinks frozen. However, the beauty of this gathering was that there was no last minute rush because Patrizia and I were cooking a portion of the items on the menu.
The afternoon easily rolled into evening. There was more an air of leisure in the kitchen than an air of focused attention, because there was no set dinnertime. We started the evening with our brandy slushes and pisto manchego crostini. Once we finished cooking the Eggs Louisiana, the husbands and children came in and grabbed a bite. When the tomato salad and pesto was finished, everyone also nibbled on that. We would talk some and eat some and then move on to the next tasks. It made the evening fly by and it was delightful.
When it was time to eat the main course of smoked pork shoulder and grilled corn on the cob with pesto, the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. We took our dinner outside, toasted with wine and ate while the children splashed in the kiddie pool. The night ended with strawberry refrigerator cake, homemade vanilla ice cream and cold sparkling wine.
As we walked our guests out to their car and waved goodbye, I felt the fullness that comes from gathering with loved ones. It didn’t matter that it was the fourth of July because this feeling is not limited to holidays. What mattered was that it was an evening spent together with friends, free from time constraints and full of conversation and food.
The memories created inside a house make it a home. The presence, conversation and laughter of others is a blessing that helps to make a happy home. May my house always be open to others and may my kitchen always be full. Open up your home to your friends, feed them and delight in the fullness that ensues.
some of the pictures showcased on this post was photographed by Patrizia Montanari; photographer, author and the brains behind [on the square] blog.
A Pleasant Little Memory | Garlic Finger Tips
I’ve been told that the tips of my fingers constantly smell like garlic. I wear this as a badge of honor. I haven’t always had fingers of garlic, it has been something that I’ve acquired the more time I spend in the kitchen.
Cooking together was not a part of my childhood. My family enjoyed eating together, but the tasks of preparation was never delegated to others. Regardless, my interest in food was always piqued because of the memorable family gatherings around food.
I started off making apple pies that used a horrible blend of flour and water for the crust, chunks of apple pieces (that probably had bits of seed scattered about) and an insane amount of cinnamon. My parents ate it with a smile. “A good try, but not quite like Granny’s apple pie”. Later on, I developed a slight obsession with chicken and dumplings and my dedicated mother helped me to create a dish that I felt inclined to make twice a week for six months.
Throughout college I would occasionally cook for my roommates, but the attraction of take-out food was far too appealing. It wasn’t until I started to date my future spouse that I began to cook with someone.
We spent our evenings preparing meals in his cramped apartment kitchen. I guess this is where my garlic finger tips began to develop. The food isn’t what I remember the most about those early days of cooking. It was the feeling of being with a loved one, working side-by-side to create something enjoyable together.
By the time we were married and into our first year of cooking, we had developed a rhythm in the kitchen. Music playing and wine poured, we would attempt cookery with what we thought was precision and poise. We learned a great deal and over time, cooking with Randy became a part of our marriage. Date nights at home are spent opening a bottle of wine, eating cheese and prosciutto and preparing meals.
Now that we have children, we also pursue with them the art of cooking together. The kitchen is the perfect environment to work side-by-side and see what can be created as a family, while all pursuing the same purpose. It’s my intention to pass the scented garlic finger tips as an inheritance to my children and grandchildren.
It is time to gather again in the kitchen. Cook with others. Invite family and friends into your home — spend a leisurely dinner together free from time constraints and cook. Give your guests a gift of hospitality: time, conversation and homemade food.