Monthly Archives: December 2012

Duck Confit Lasagne

duck confit lasagne servedI made duck confit ravioli for Christmas Eve dinner (I haven’t posted it yet because I have so many pictures to sort through). I made it two ways: one ravioli was stuffed with duck confit, morel mushrooms, and ricotta, and was served with a pumpkin cream sauce; the other version was duck confit with pumpkin puree served with a brown butter with sauteed morel mushrooms. Both were great, but very filling. Speaking of filling, I had quite a bit leftover, so I combined both fillings and used it as the base for my duck confit lasagne. There are many schools of thought that suggest that lasagne should be made with a bechamel sauce rather than ricotta cheese. Since I had already used the ricotta as a base for my ravioli filling, I decided to use both for this recipe. I would recommend making this with homemade or fresh lasagne noodles (available in the refigerated pasta section of most grocery stores). I opted for the grocery store version, and they worked out great. Warning: this dish is very rich – I served it with a simple salad of mixed greens and vinagrette. I imagine it would freeze well (most lasagne does), so you could cut individual portions and freeze those to use for brunch, lunch, or easy warm-up weeknight dinners. If you are going to make your own duck confit – you will need to prep two days in advance. Buying prepared duck confit is, obviously, a huge time saver. Serves 8-10.


  • 3 Cups Cooked Duck Confit * – shredded
  • 1 Cup Pumpkin Puree
  • 15 Oz. Ricotta Cheese
  • 1 Oz. Morel Mushrooms (fresh or rehydrated dried) – or any other favorite mushroom
  • 1 Medium Shallot – finely chopped
  • 1 Clove Garlic – mince
  • 1 TBS. Olive Oil, plus more for greasing pan
  • Homemade or Fresh Lasagne Noodles (can substitute dried lasagne)
  • 3- 3.5 Cups Mozzerrella Cheese – shredded
  • 3/4 Cup Parmesan Cheese – shredded
  • Parsley – chopped for garnish
  • Bechamel Sauce, (see below)
  • Lasagne Noodles

*You can purchase prepared duck confit at a your local gourmet grocery store, or prepare your own: here’s a great recipe for duck confit.


  • 5 TBS. Unsalted Butter
  • 4 TBS. Flour
  • 3 Cups Milk
  • 2 tsp. Salt
  • 1/4 tsp. Nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. White Pepper or Fresh Ground Black Pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat milk until just below boiling. In a separate saucepan, melt butter; add flour and whisk until smooth; cook butter and flourheat for another 3 minutes. Slowly add hot milk, whisking constantly. slowly add hota milkAdd salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook for an additional 10 minutes over medium heat, whisking occasionally. Turn off heat and set aside.


Preheat oven to 350 Degrees. Prepare lasagne noodles according to directions; Cook lasagne noodlesrun under cold water to cool and set aside. In a small saucepan, heat olive oil, garlic, and shallots over medium heat until softened, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and saute until softened – turn off heat and set aside. Combine duck confit, pumpkin puree, ricotta, and butter, shallot, garlic, and mushroom mixture – mix until well combined. Thru Dec 27 005Grease a 9×12 baking dish and add one layer of lasagne noodles to cover the bottom. Add 1/2 of the duck confit mixture and spread in an even thin layer. spread duck confit mixturePour 1/2 bechamel sauce over top of mixturePour bechmel sauce over and add 1 cup of mozzerrella chees and about 1/3 cup of parmesan. Repeat process ending with remaining mozzerrella and parmesan cheese.spread layer of cheese Sprinkle with chopped parmesan cheese. Cook at 350 Degrees for 25 minutes and then increase oven heat to 400 Degrees and cook for an additional 10 minutes until top is nicely browned. duck confit lasagne out of the ovenAllow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with a simple salad. Enjoy!


Cube Steak with Mushrooms and Gravy

Cube Steak with Mushrooms, gravy, and Mashed PotatoesThere is nothing gourmet about this recipe, but it is Midwestern comfort food all day long. This was a staple in my house as a kid; honestly, I’ve made it only a very few time but always enjoy it; usually I make it when I am in desperate need of comfort food. Cube steaks are not inexpensive, which is surprising, because I think they’re kind of glorified ground beef, but they are flavorful. (Our family dog was served a raw cube steak ever night for dinner). I would love to tell you that I served the cubed steak with some awesome homemade gravy, but, that’s not the case – I doused them in Heinz beef gravy out of the jar (my Mom always used Franco American which comes in a can – I just feel better about gravy out of a jar). My Mom also used canned mushrooms – really? So, here’s my spruced up cube steak with mushrooms and gravy recipe. Serves 4.


  • 4 Cube Steaks
  • 1/4 Cup Minced Onion (about 1/2 Small onion)
  • 1 Clove Garlic – Minced
  • 1 Package of Sliced White Mushrooms
  • 2 Jars of Beef Gravy
  • 2 TBS. Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper


Season cube steaks generously with salt and pepper and allow to rest for 30-45 minutes.Cube Steak In a large saucepan, heat olive oil; add garlic and onion and saute until fragrant. Add mushrooms and saute until softened. Remove mushrooms from saucepan and set aside. Saute Mushrooms and onionsAdd cube steaks to pan and brown on both sides. Return mushroom mixture to pan and add gravy. Reduce heat, cover,  and simmer until cube steaks are fully cooked and tender – at least 20 minutes. Combine Gravy, mushrooms, and cube steakServe over mashed potatoes.

Smoked Chicken and Mushrooms with Penne Pasta

Smoked Chicken and Mushroom Penne Pasta

This dish was one of those surprising results of leftovers; I think some of the best, most creative recipes are a result of just using what you have on hand. Caesar salad is the best example of such, but this is my version of the best use of leftovers. Here’s the story: Despite the fact that I was making duck confit ravioli (soon to be posted) for Christmas Eve dinner, Bryan decided he would smoke a chicken…because we had had one, and he was firing up the smoker for a huge pork butt that he randomly bought. We never did eat the smoked chicken, but Bryan cut it up and saved it – and I, of course, had to figure out a way to use it. The smoky flavored chicken needed to be balanced with something with a little zip. I considered just a standard cream sauce, but, in my leftover effort, decided to use cream cheese for the base of my sauce. I had shitake mushrooms on hand (you could substitute almost any other mushroom with great results) and also arugula (leftover from our beef carpaccio on Christmas Eve). End result…spectacular, in my humble opinion.


  • 3 Cups Smoked* Cooked Chicken – skinned and cut or shredded into 1/2 pieces
  • 1 Medium Shallot – finely chopped
  • 3.5 oz. Shitake (or other favorite) Mushroom – coursely chopped
  • 1 Clove Garlic – minced
  • 2 TBS. Olive Oil
  • 2 Kumato or Roma Tomatoes – seeded and diced
  • 4 Oz. (1/2 package) Cream Cheese
  • 1 Cup Chicken Broth
  • 2 Cups Arugula
  • Penne Pasta  (about 5 cups cooked – 3/4 box uncooked)
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Shredded Parmesan cheese (as garnish)
  • Chopped Parsley (as garnish)

* If you don’t have smoked chicken, you can certainly substitute any cooked chicken – rotisserie chicken meat would work very well.


Cook penne pasta according to directions on label; run under cold water to stop the cooking process and set aside. In a large saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat; add shallots, garlic, and mushrooms. Saute shallot, mushrroms and garlicSaute until mushrooms are softened. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken and tomatoes and cook until heated through. Add tomatoesAdd cream cheese and mix until well incorporated. Add Cream cheeseAdd chicken broth to thin out and create a sauce. Add Chicken broth to thin outAdd arugula and cook until arugula is wilted. cook until arugula is wiltedSeason with salt and pepper as needed. Add pasta to saute pan, toss until pasta is well coated and rewarmed. Add cooked penneGarnish with shredded parmesan cheese and finely chopped parsely.

Close up

Grilled Pizza with Lamb, Goat Cheese, Mushrooms, Shallots and Roasted Peppers

Thru November 15 166

This pizza was amazing! Since I am obsessed with grilled bread, why not become obsessed with grilled pizza? You could certainly make this with any kind of meat/sausage, or forego it all together. However, I love well seasoned ground lamb, and the flavor combinations of these toppings really worked well. I used store bought pizza dough (Trader Joe’s has great fresh pizza dough, but most grocery stores sell frozen dough), but if you have a favorite pizza dough recipe, that would probably be even better. I’m not sure how one of those Boboli type crusts would work; it seems like they might get too crispy. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. (Photos are for a double recipe). Serves 4-5.


  • 1 Pizza crust (uncooked)
  • 1/3-1/2 Cup Pizza Sauce (I used canned)
  • 1 Cup Shredded Mozzarella
  • 1 Lb. of ground lamb (or other meat of your choice)
  • 3-4 oz. Goat Cheese
  • 1/2-1 Cup Fresh Mushrooms (I used Criminis – sometimes called Baby Bellas)
  • 1 Red Pepper – seeds and stems removed, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 Shallot – thinly sliced
  • 1 TBS. Garlic Powder
  • 1 TBS. Dried Greek Seasoning (or 1 tsp. dried rosemary, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 tsp. dried thyme) + extra oregano for sprinkling
  • 3 TBS. Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Cooking Spray


Preheat oven to 400 Degrees. Preheat grill to Medium. Combine peppers, shallots, 2 TBS. olive oil and a couple of pinches of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Mix until all vegetables are well coated. Line a baking tray with foil and spread vegetables in a single layer on the tray. Roast at 400 degrees until browned and softened – remove from oven and set aside.Roasted Peppers and Shallots Season the ground lamb with garlic powder, herbs, and salt and pepper and mix until the seasonings are well incorporated. Season LambForm the meat mixture into small balls. Add 1 TBS. olive oil to a medium saute pan and heat over medium. Add the meat balls to the pan, brown on all sides and continue cooking until cooked through.Brown meatballs Set meatballs aside. Using same pan (do not clean, but you may have to drain some fat), add mushrooms and saute until softened. Remove the skin from the red peppers and slice into strips.

Lightly flour a cookie sheet or cutting board. Stretch dough to desired shape and thickness ( you don’t want to make the dough too thin or you will have difficulty with it on the grill, but if it’s too thick, it won’t cook enough), about 1/2 inch. Stretch and Shape DoughSpray grill grates generously with cooking spray (they make one for grills) and place pizza crust directly on the grill grates and turn the heat down to low. Grill until you have nice brown grill marks; flip over and do the same on the other side.Lightly BrownedNice toasted grill marks

Spread pizza crust with a thin layer of sauce (or be more generous if you like a lot of sauce) . Spread with sauceSpread mozzerrella evenly over the crust. Add “lumps” of goat cheese, meat balls, strips of roasted red pepper, roasted shallots, and sauteed mushrooms. Sprinkle with oregano.Add remaining ingredients

Spray the grill with Cooking spray and place prepared pizza directly on the grill grates. Grill until mozzarella cheese is completely melted and crust is nicely browned. (If you notice that the crust is darkening too much, turn off the burner directly under the pizza, but leave on the two outside burners.) Finished PizzasAllow pizza to rest for a few minutes, then slice and serve.

Christmas 2012

The Fireplace at ChristmasIs it possible that Christmas is only a couple of days away? The treeYup! I was on my way out to Holiday Market (nothing Christmassy about it; it’s just my local gourmet food market), and ran into Bryan who was shopping for my stocking stuffers – it’s tradition that I receive a smoked fish (preferably Sable) in my stocking. We have so many great Christmas traditions that is difficult to document them all, but I’ll try to name a few:

Christmas Eve: We meet friends and family at a local bar for libations; we go home for a great Christmas Eve dinner (this year it will be Beef Carpaccio, followed by homemade Duck Confit and Morel Mushroom Ravioli). (Will blog recipes soon). Kids come home and we open our new pajamas.

Christmas Day: Open Presents and feast on homemade Waffles (waffle maker was a gift several years ago), bacon, sausage, bagels with cream cheese and smoked sable. Then off to spend time with the family for a giant Christmas feast (we bring the cheese platter and devilled eggs).  LIFE IS GOOD!The cats at Christmas

Tonight Max enjoyed Christmas Pasta (a gift from my dear M.E.) with marinara served on our traditional Spode Christmas Tree china which my step-mother bought for me twenty years ago.Christmas Pasta

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All!

Classic Chicken Parmesan

chicken parmesan platedThis is a much requested dish in our house. Bryan and the kids love it. What’s not to love…lightly breaded chicken, luscious melted cheese, hearty pasta, and a savory sauce? I, however, don’t love the calories. However, every once in a while, you just have to splurge. This is an easy dish to make, particularly if you have some sauce in your freezer (or an acceptable cheat: use sauce from the jar). Serve the chicken parm with some good crusty bread and a simple green salad, and you’ll be a weeknight hero. Serves 6 (with leftovers)


  • 6 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
  • 1/3 – 1/2 Cup Flour
  • 2 Eggs – beaten
  • 2 1/2- 3 Cups Italian Breadcrumbs
  • 1/3 – 1/2 Cup Olive Oil
  • 2 TBS. Unsalted Butter
  • 4 TBS. Fresh Basil – chopped
  • 2 Cups Shredded Mozzarella
  • 1/2 Cup Freshly Grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1 Cup Freshly Grated Parmesan Romano
  • Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper

For the Sauce:

  • 1 Medium Sweet Onion – chopped
  • 4 Cloves Garlic – minced
  • 1/2 Cup Chicken Stock (or broth)
  • 1/4 Cup White Wine (can substitute with extra chicken broth)
  • 3 Large Cans (14.5 Oz) Crushed Tomatoes (San Marzanos are preferable)
  • 1 Small Can Tomato Paste
  • 2 TBS. Dried Italian Seasoning or 4 TBS. Fresh (combination of rosemary, parsley, oregano, marjoram)
  • 3 TBS. Fresh Basil – chopped
  • 2 tsp. Sugar


Preheat oven to 350 Degrees. Place chicken breasts between two pieces of plastic wrap or in a ziplock bag and pound out with the smooth side of a meat mallet (if you don’t have a meat mallet, you can use the bottom of a saucepan, a hammer, or the side of a can).Chicken in plastic wrap I usually pound to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Chicken pounded thinSeason the chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken breasts in flour, then dip in egg, and finish by dredging in the breadcrumbs – set chicken aside. Egg wash and flourAdd olive oil (use enough oil so that the bottom of the pan is covered in a thin layer) and butter to a large skillet or deep saute pan and heat over medium until oil is hot enough to fry. Add chicken to pan and fry until golden brown on each side (about 3 – 5 minutes on each side). Add chicken to panRemove the chicken breasts and set aside.

If you are making the tomato sauce fresh: Add the garlic and onions to the pan and cook until transluscent. Saute garlic and onionsAdd the wine (if using) and stock to the pan and scrape up any tasty browned bits. Reduce the wine/stock to 1/2. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar and salt and pepper (to taste) to the pan and cook for 30-45 minutes. Add basil to sauce and stir to incorporate. Sauce with plenty of herbs

In an ovenproof baking dish, spread sauce (about 3/4-1 inch deep) on bottom of baking dish. Add sauce to baking dishLay the chicken breasts in a single layer in the dish and spoon remaining sauce around chicken. Add cooked chicken to sauce in panCover each chicken breast with the mozzarella cheese, followed by the romano and, finally, the parmesan. Cover with cheeseCook in 350 degree oven until cheese is melted and chicken is heated through (about 30 minutes).out of the ovenServe one chicken breast, with plenty of sauce, per person over your favorite cooked pasta; garnish with chopped basil and additional parmesan.chicken parmesan

Sweet Potato Hash

Sweet Potato Hash picutred with Pecan Crusted Turkey Cutlet with Cranberry Sauce

Sweet Potato Hash picutred with Pecan Crusted Turkey Cutlet with Cranberry Sauce

I love sweet potatoes, and it just so happens that they are really good for you. They are loaded with beta carotene and vitamin A, and are considered one of those “super foods” we should eat more of. Usually, I bake them (or cook them in the microwave if short on time), and I’ve also made sweet potato fries (not as good for you, for obvious reasons). The other night I decided I wanted something a little different. When I was young, we often had a side of hash (or fried potatoes as my mother called them) as our starch at dinner. My mom always prepared the hash with onions, and it was always fried in bacon grease. I wanted to stick with a healthier alternative than bacon grease (not that I have anything against bacon grease), so I just used olive oil.This hash is great as a breakfast or dinner side. Serves 4-6 as a side dish.

  • 3 Large Sweet Potatoes – peeled and cut into cubes (about 3/4 inch or whatever size you prefer)
  • 1 Large Sweet or Red Onion – chopped
  • 3 Cloves Garlic – minced
  • 4 TBS. Olive Oil
  • 1 TBS. Unsalted Butter
  • 1 TBS. Dried Rosemary 9or 2 TBS. Fresh) – chopped
  • 1 tsp. Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
  • 1-2 TBS. Salt (Kosher or Grey Salt is preferable)
  • Fresh Ground Pepper


Preheat oven to 450 Degrees. In a large saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and sprinkle with salt. Reduce heat and continue cooking until the onions are nicely browned – about 15-20 minutes. Browned onionsTurn off heat. Add sweet potatoes, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, red pepper (if using), a generous coating of salt and freshly ground pepper to onions. Toss until all potatoes are well covered. Transfer potato mixture (in a single layer) to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil. Add cubed sweet potatoesRoast for 30-45 minutes (flipping once during process) until potatoes are softened to your liking. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed.

Pecan Crusted Turkey Cutlets with Cranberry Sauce

Pecan Crusted Turkey Cutlet with Cranberry Sauce and Sweet Potato Hash

Pecan Crusted Turkey Cutlet with Cranberry Sauce and Sweet Potato Hash

I developed this recipe based on my Tender Pork Chop recipe in which the pork chops are breaded, then browned, and baked. The trick to keeping them tender, however, is that they are baked covered, with a little bit of water in the bottom of the baking dish. I decided to add some pecans to my breading, because I think the flavor is complimentary to turkey. The sauce is easy, it’s just jellied cranberry sauce (straight from the can) and chicken broth combined and reduced. You could add wine if you like (I just didn’t have any open and didn’t feel opening a bottle was justified). I used turkey tenderloins (thick cutlets), but you could certainly make this using boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The sauce would also be great with the Tender Pork Chops. Serves 4-6.


  • 4 Turkey Tenderloins (or thick cutlets)
  • 1/2 Cup Pecans – finely chopped
  • 1 Cup Italian Bread Crumbs*
  • 1/2 Cup Flour
  • 1/4 Cup Milk
  • 1 Large Egg
  • 1/2 Cup Boiling Chicken Stock (can substitute water)
  • 1-2 TBS. Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper

* I used 1/2 Italian Bread Crumbs and 1/2 Panko Bread Crumbs


Preheat oven to 350 Degrees. In a shallow bowl, combine flour,
breadcrumbs, and pecans and mix thoroughly.Combine pecans and bread crumbs In another bowl, whisk together egg and milk. Generously season turkey cutlets with salt and pepper. Dip each cutlet in the egg mixture and then the breadcrumb mixture until well coated on
all sides. Breaded Turkey cutletsIn a medium saute pan, heat olive oil and add the chops. Brown the cutlets on all sides. Browned Turkey cutlesTransfer cutlets to a baking dish and add boiling liquid. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hr.


  • 7 oz. (1/2 can) Jellied Cranberry Sauce
  • 1/2 Cup Chicken Broth

Add cranberry sauce and chicken broth to a small saucepan. Combine cranberry and chicken brothHeat over medium high, whisking to blend, until just boiling. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced by 50% (or to desired consistency). Finished reduced sauceServe warm.

Chipotle Pumpkin Soup

Chipotle Pumpkin SoupAs everyone is getting ready for the next round of holidays, I am still trying to catch up from the last round (Halloween and Thanksgiving). I love pumpkin soup and have a great “standard” recipe, but the addition of the smoky, spicy chipotle flavor, really puts this soup in a class all of its own. I served this at my “Wicked Wine Tasting,” and people loved it. To add to the appeal, serve the soup out of a hollowed, cleaned pumpkin (or individual pie pumpkins). As for using fresh pumpkin,cooked and pureed…I’m over it! I can handle the laborious job of cleaning and cutting pumpkins for roasting, but throw in the whole puree process and it just seems like, well… work. Someday, not in the anywhere near future, I am going to try a taste test to determine whether people can actually tell the difference in dishes prepared with canned pumpkin vs. fresh, and, more importantly, to determine whether the fresh pumpkin tastes better. Because this soup is hearty, I prefer it to be rather thick. If you prefer a thinner soup, you can easily adjust by using more chicken stock. I’m sorry I don’t have more pictures; things were pretty hectic getting ready for the party. Serves 8-10 as a starter, or 5-6 as a main course.


  • 3 15 oz. Cans of Pumpkin Puree
  • 4-6 Cups Chicken Stock or Broth
  • 1 Medium Sweet or Yellow Onion – chopped
  • 3 Cloves Garlic – chopped
  • 1-2 Chipotle Peppers (canned in adobo sauce) – chopped
  • 1 tsp. Ground Cumin
  • 1 tsp. Dried Oregano
  • 2 TBS. Olive Oil
  • 2 TBS. Lime Juice
  • Salt to taste (about 2 tsp.)
  • Creme Fraiche (optional – garnish)
  • Cilantro (optional – garnish)


Add olive oil to a large stockpot and heat over medium. Add the onions and cook until softened (but not browned). Add garlic, chipotle, and cumin and cook until garlic is aromatic (about 1 minute). Add the pumpkin puree, 4 cups of chicken stock, oregano, and salt. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 25-30 minutes. Check consistency; add more chicken stock to thin the soup. Puree soup in blender (or use an immersion blender). If you prefer, you can skip this step (soup will have bits of onion, garlic and chipotle), but I think it’s worth the little bit of extra work to get a smooth soup. Taste, and add more salt, cumin or chipotle (if you want more heat). Return to stockpot and add lime juice. Serve warm and garnish with creme fraiche and cilantro (optional).Halloween Party 079


Sterling Vineyards Ultimate Host Contest

The Hosting Calm Before the Storm

The Hosting Calm Before the Storm

The Backdrop of the Booth

The Backdrop of the Booth

The Booth

The Booth

Dessert Trays

Dessert Trays

The Judges Visit

The Judges Visit

Padma Samples the Food

Padma Samples the Food

Friends and blog followers know that I entered my “Wicked Wine Tasting” party in a contest to be named The Ultimate Host by Sterling Vineyards.  There were four separate challenges (Girls/Guys Night In, Wine and Dessert Pairings, Music and Wine Pairing, and the final was Host’s Choice) – I submitted an entry for the fourth challenge. Although I put quite a bit of effort into my entry, I must say, I didn’t think I would ever possibly win. Well, much to my pleasant surprise, I did win. All four semi-finalists would be flown to New York  to create the ultimate party in a 12×12 space for 150 people they did not know. The entries were judged by a panel of four judges; the head judge was Padma Lakshmi (of “Top Chef” fame).

So, I recently competed in the finals in New York, but was not lucky enough to take home the $25,000 prize (which also included a trip to Pebble Beach for the Food and Wine Expo, and a trip for two to Sterling Vineyards). While I am disappointed, it was a great experience overall. I really feel honored to have been a semi-finalist and it is awesome to be recognized for what I love to do which is to entertain and cook for people. Ironically, there were no cooking facilities at the site where the contest was held, so I had to order all of the food.

For those of you with whom I have not personally shared the details of my “party,” here’s a summary:

First, let me begin by saying that many of my ideas come to me when I am walking Humphrey; in fact, on some walks I have even found some items to use for decorations. So, I spent many an evening walk trying to come up with a theme for my party. (Note: the semi-finalists from earlier challenges did not have the two week crunch). Almost all of last year’s contestants did some kind of winter wonderland theme (the winner had a great apres ski party at “Mt. Sterling”), so I knew I would avoid that. One of the chapters in the textbook I use for my ESOL class describes the Chinese Five Elements and the need for balance in those elements. Since I teach mostly Asian students, have travelled extensively throughout Asia, and love to cook and eat Asian food, I thought I should try to do a party themed around the Five Elements. When I think about the most revered cuisines, all take into account balancing flavors and textures. Eg. Thai food always incorporates sweet, hot, sour, and salty. Everytime I cook, I think about balancing flavors. Certainly when one thinks of a good wine, one thinks of balance. Haven’t you noticed how wine descriptions will say something like “big and fruity with a hint of spice”? And then, think about pairing wine and food and you think about balancing the elements so that they are comlimentary. So that’s how my “Sterling Zen Den” evolved.

With my theme in place, the rest sort of just came to me (on my evening walks with Humphrey). I knew I would have to incorporate the Five Elements (Fire, Water, Earth. Wood, and Metal) into my booth and think about food that would fit the theme. Showcasing Sterling Vineyards (last year’s winner did Mt. Sterling)seemed like it should be a priority. I thought what if I could incorporate all of the elements into one memorable feature in the booth. I had a vision for a large S and a large V hanging on the wall with little shelves that held lit votive candles so that the SV resembled a marquis. Huge advantage for team Katherine – his name is Bryan. I tell him what I want, and he finds a way to make the perfect thing. The day after I learned I was a finalist, I went over to my “dear friend’s” house (yes, the one whose cat is the subject of Chronicles of an Ordinary Cat Sitter ) and we started brainstorming. She suggested incorporating birch since it is wood, popular in Asia, and also is kind of wintery. We found some cool rustic tables with birch legs, and you can probably guess what the next step was…ask Bryan to make one. Coincidentally, Bryan had brought back a bunch of birch logs from a recent fishing trip up north. Unfortunately, using the logs meant that “dear friend” would have to sacrifice her birch reindeer which he promised to make her. But she’s was OK with that – I  am probably indebted to her which will involve me catsitting again. So, needless to say, Bryan built a beautiful birch legged table.

Each contestant was given $3000 to put together the whole party, and you could not go over budget. If you wanted to use an item you already own, it would have a value attached to it. So, I had to keep “Mr. Open the Wallet” in line. I decided I should have a waterfall to incorporate the water element. I was going to look into renting a waterfall in New York, but Bryan, who also has inspired moments while walking Humphrey, suggested that he could make a waterfall – or two, for that matter. He came up with the idea of a waterfall with a shelf that showcases a bottle of wine – brilliant, but sounded complicated and probably not in the budget. Well, it turns out that Bryan was able to get a small remnant slab of granite from his stone supplier for free – yes, it did involve dumpster diving, but he was OK with that. So, I now had a piece that incorporated water and stone – why not try to include one more element? Bryan suggested that the water should flow into a galvinized steel tub (inexpensive at Tractor Supply) filled with rocks. Again, brilliant, but believe it or not, rocks are expensive, unless you collect them yourself from the shores of Lake Huron at your in-laws cottage. So, on our trip up to pick-up our Heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, and our lamb, we stopped by and collected rocks.

I still hadn’t come up with a menu, but that would be the easy part, and all I had to do for wine pairings was to go talk to my friends at Kakos Market. I did learn that most of last year’s contestants did supply a party favor. Before I settled on birch as the main wood, I had considered bamboo, so I had bamboo on my mind when I remembered seeing mini live bamboo plants as give-aways somewhere. Sure enough, they are a popular favor at weddings and parties and you can purchase them in large quantities on-line from Eastern Leaf . My 150 mini bamboo trees arrived safely despite our recent cold weather. Note that I am not referencing the bamboo as lucky…well, for obvious reasons. I decided I would set the bamboo in a galvinized tub filled with rocks (I was overzealous in my rock collection effort). After much consideration (at one point I thought I shouldn’t have all Asian food, but that just didn’t make sense), I decided to serve California rolls (everyone loves sushi and I was competing in a wine event), Thai summer rolls, and beef satay. I also had a bowl with some rice cracker snacks, wasabi peas, and peanuts. I found a cute little Zen fondue pot on-line (what could be wrong with chocolate fondue?). While in Florida for my daughter’s lacrosse tournament, I discovered these chocolate rocks (candy cover chocolate that look like little rocks), and I figured those would be perfect. I also had a local bakery, Love and Buttercream  make sugar cookies with a yin yang symbol frosted on top. Those I carried on the plane with me to NYC – the other items (except for the sushi, summer rolls and satay) travelled by truck with Bryan. I went on-line and was lucky to find great restaurants that offered catering service – Sushi Zen prepared excellent California rolls (the restaurant itself is lovely) and I am grateful to Aceluck for delivering the spring rolls and satay right on time.

As Bryan was in the process of crafting the birch legged table, he cut some extra pieces of birch which I could use for pillar candle stands and to put under my serving trays to add some dimension. By the way, if you’re in need of candles, I highly recommend Quick Candles – inexpensive, good quality candles and votive holders delivered…you guessed it, quick (ly). Since I still had some extra rocks, I decided to write food and wine quotes on rocks and place those about the table. Someone actually stole one of my rocks during the show – come on, it’s a rock with a quote written on it! I also had to contend with “invitations” to give to the judges upon their arrival. I bought five specialty papers that represented the elements and then crafted an invitation for each of the judges that said why I chose that element for them (it was a stretch because there’s only so much you can learn about someone from their blog or website).

So, my dear Bryan loaded up his truck and drove out to NYC with his brother. I flew out the next day with my cookies and we enjoyed a lovely dinner at Tao (yes, even our night before dinner out fit my theme) which is where I went for my 40th birthday. The day of the event was a little stressful; we were to start unloading at 1:00 PM, but that was delayed by an hour because the space wasn’t ready yet, and we were to have our booths completed by 5:00 PM and ready for the party promptly at 6:00. Due to the late start, they gave us extra time. I changed clothes and put on make-up at 5:50PM.  I was so impressed with all of the other competitors and everyone was friendly and gracious (good qualities to have if you’re trying to be the Ultimate Host). It was amazing how different all of our themes were, and I was in awe at how much detail was taken into consideration. For the most part, except for those who devoured handfuls of sushi, the ones who stole things (bamboo pens, rock, wine glasses), the guests (approximately 400 of them) were wonderful. I enjoyed meeting new people, relished in the compliments, and felt very relaxed and at ease in my Zen space. By the time they announced the winner, I just desperately wanted to take off my killer bright red high heels and have a glass of wine. You can check out pictures of the other competitors booth on the Sterling Facebook page (you may have to scroll down a bit). You can check out the judges Blogs at: Catch My Party  (Jilliam Tohber Leslie) Dine and Dish  (Kristen Doyle) and Fab Femme (Eryka). Thanks to all who supported me in so many ways!