Goodbye Sucks

Living life with no regrets is a powerful thing.  It makes life fun and free.  However, with the highest highs come some powerful lows, and today is one of those times.  Kim and I have a friend, who over the past few years has really become family.  She lived a mile from our home, and would frequently be an unexpected, but always welcome guest.  There were trivia nights at the bar, sushi expeditions, and even the occasional “accidentally drunk” evening.  The dynamic among the three of us was amazing, as though we had always known each other.  Our respective families became families, and the bond that we formed together will never be broken.  Our times together were, and are, amazing.  So a funny thing happened a few weeks ago…
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The search for a new job led our friend on some interviews, and those interviews became offers.  Before long an offer became acceptance, and acceptance brought with it reality.  Our time together was drawing to a rapid close.  Now, we knew New Jersey was not where she was going to plant roots, but we were hopeful.  As it turns out, change was in the air.  Big change.  Like, other side of the country change.  Her new job would take her to California, pretty much as far away as she could get (with no disrespect to Hawaii and Alaska).  Kim didn’t want to talk about it.  Ever.  She pushed that reality off as hard as she could, because pain is not something we readily embrace.  I felt it too, but dove right into talking about it with our friend, while Kim worked through her feelings.  As the weeks grew shorter, reality started sinking in.  Apartment hunting, clearing out her New Jersey apartment and countless dinners with friends and family to say goodbye.  Two weeks of training in California, then a brief trip back for the last hurrah.  That was this week.  Today was the day.
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We met her and her boyfriend near the airport where he parked for the weekend.  They have a wedding to attend in Cincinnati so he’ll be back, while she will continue onto her new adventure.  The drive to the airport was quick, the chatter lively.  Parked and in the terminal we approached security.  This was it.  The moment Kim wanted to push off was here, and staring her in the face through the eyes of our friend.  It was hug time, and cue the water works.  I amusingly mentioned to Jason (our friend’s boyfriend) that they were going to miss their flight, because once one is locked in a Kim embrace, there was no getting out until she released you.  Much to my surprise she released, but the tears continued.  I went in for the hug with our friend and smiled, and made her say goodbye while looking me in the eye, because she too had to cry if Kim was crying.  It worked!  With an arm around Kim we watched as they walked toward security, down the terminal and out of sight.  Our dynamic, though unbreakable, changed.
Kim and Maya
No more random stopovers at the house.  No more impromptu happy hours.  No more mailing it in when cooking Indian food (that’s a story for another day).  We’ll see her again, several trips are already booked, but it’s different.  Her presence, her energy, is going to be over two thousand miles away.  That’s hard.
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As we walked to the car, I commented to Kim, “we need to find some new fucking friends.”  Tears became laughter, as I followed with the question, “too soon?”   A few text messages between the four of us pre-flight and it was back to our day to day.
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None of us have any regrets about the time we spent together.  We were and continue to be family.  We laughed hard, we lived life to the fullest together.  The tears and the sadness are not of regret, but of the deep sense that this chapter ended around 11am in Terminal B at Newark Airport.  We all saw it coming, but it doesn’t hit you until it’s happening.  That’s the low of living life with no regrets.  You never want it to end, and when one chapter does, those tears are the great memories rushing back all at once, and that’s overwhelming.
So travel well Maya.  We love you, and we’ll miss you, but we WILL see you soon.  Good luck, keep in touch, and stay Fat, Drunk and Fancy.

The Black Manhattan – come to the dark side

So I get a fair amount of crap from my lovely wife about my affinity for a certain cocktail: the black Manhattan. This is a drink I make at home (I’m enjoying one as I write this post actually) and order out whenever I get a chance (or remember). It’s also true that I have taught several bartenders across the country how to make this drink, simply because they weren’t familiar with it. That doesn’t make me special, it makes me a fan of the drink! So, how did this love affair with a particular libation come to be, and how can one do it at home? So glad you asked because I’m ready to share!

My first experience with the black Manhattan was two years ago in Denver. The location was Matsuhisa, a to die for sushi joint that is part of the Nobu Matsuhisa’s group of restaurants (yes, that Nobu). If you’re in Denver and are craving sushi, make your reservation now. I’ll wait.

So I was the first in my party to arrive, so I did what any self respecting traveler would do, I headed to the bar. There I perused the menu and settled on the “New Brooklyn.” My bartender informed me that the cocktail was better known as the Black Manhattan. One sip and I was hooked. Be sure to order one when you get there and get hooked as well.

So after several cocktails, I had a new favorite. Obviously my intention was to bring this back home and enjoy it out and about, as well as while sitting on my couch. A few weeks later it was off to a local haunt to meet some clients and my lovely bride. Of course I ordered a Black Manhattan, but I was met with a puzzled look. Education time my friend! After a quick lesson and insisting that the bartender try the drink, a new favorite was available (Addams Tavern in Westfield NJ now makes an excellent Black Manhattan). Ever since I have been spreading the good word of this cocktail, much to my wife’s embarrassment!

So what is this lovely drink? It’s quite simple and only requires one addition to a well stocked home bar. Rye is the preferred base, but you can certainly use bourbon. I enjoy it with Bulliet or Angel’s Envy Rye. The second ingredient is Averna, a Sicilian liqueur that replaces the sweet vermouth that traditionally makes up a Manhattan. Two parts rye, one part Averna. A few shakes of angastora bitters and an orange peel, and you have a masterpiece on your hands (and in your glass). I typically enjoy mine with a large cube, but you can certainly enjoy it up if that’s your style. Please, for the love of all things good and holy, try it. Let me know what you think, and if you’ve become completely obsessed with it, to the point of annoying your spouse. Only then have you truly arrrived. Now to finish my drink…

Turtle + the Wolf

Turtle + the Wolf

It started with a bomb cyclone, followed right behind by a polar vortex. In other words, it was winter in New Jersey, so suck it up buttercup. We committed to a monthly dining experience with my wife’s cousin and her husband, and this was the maiden voyage of this culinary adventure. With much fanfare and anticipation, we made our way to Upper Montclair for our first experience with a two year old gem, Turtle + the Wolf. The culmination of chef Lauren Hirschberg’s lifelong dream, the setting was perfect for the evening. The warm lighting and inviting staff left the chill of the arctic air outside far behind. Dark wood with an industrial feel, lit primarily by the open kitchen to our right. Audible under the hum of a lively crowd was music that would make Alt Nation on SiriusXM proud. Our table was at the mid point of the long narrow restaurant, perfectly situated for the meal to come.
Our server, Ben, met us with a smile, opened our wine, and gave us a minute to peruse the menu. This is not an extensive menu, but that is a thing of beauty. If you do it right, you don’t need endless options. Also, as a BYOB, the wine list started at home, and it was a selection we would not have otherwise found on a wine list anywhere. This is a strong nod and shameless plug for our friends at Vincent Arroyo Winery, and their 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve Petit Sarah. Make your way to Calistoga and get acquainted with them now.
Now, there are restaurants who have daily specials, or the catch of the day, but I can’t say I’ve seen the Berkshire Pork selection of the day. Pork equals happiness, so sure, I’m in! What, pray tell, is the pork of the day? Ben revealed that today it was pork belly, and all was right in the world. Additionally, there was a sea bass crudo, as an alternative to the yellow tail crudo on the regular menu. A few more minutes, plenty of laughs, and we were ready to order. One of the lessons we teach my children is that we try new things. Looking at the appetizers, that was necessary for all involved. Ordering for the table is a pleasure, and this was no exception. The sea bass crudo, chicken liver mousse, seared fois gras, and the steak tartar made the cut. Upon arrival, these appetizers clearly stole the show. The sea bass was a clean and refreshing departure from the other rich dishes, topped with sliced jalapeños and a citrus and oil drizzle. The chicken liver mousse was firm to slice, but spread on the accompanying crostini with ease, accented by a mustard seed relish. Topped with a perfectly placed egg yolk, the steak tartar was creamy and delicious. And, oh, the fois gras! Seared to perfection, with a concord grape reduction and roasted peanuts. Our wine cut the richness perfectly, with not a single morsel remaining on any of the plates. This was a glorious beginning!
For our entree selections, we cast another wide net. Clearly the pork belly had to happen, as did the duck pot pie (DUCK.POT.PIE), short ribs, and the roasted butternut squash. There was nothing low calorie about this meal (well, maybe the squash) but with a proper glass of wine, who’s going to complain? All were cooked perfectly. For me, the pork belly was a contrast within itself. Crispy on the outside (I mean like cracker crispy) and tender and juicy below the perfect crust. The duck pot pie, tucked inside a pillow of pastry, was creamy and rich (thank you duck heart gravy). The short ribs fell off the bone and the accompanying potato purée made each bite a symphony of flavor. The squash was also tender and flavorful. Now, these meals were delightful, however we had one consistent observation. Each could have been enhanced with some salt. The flavors were begging for a punch, to jump off the plate and explode. A heavier hand with the salt would have put them over the top. No one left disappointed however.
Ben was a perfect host, great personality and just enough attention paid to our table. He arrived with dessert menus in hand, and clearly this was not a crowd who knew how to say no. We went with the appetizer approach and selected an assortment of treats. We limited it to three selections; the Zeppole with fig preserves, Maple pot au creme, and the Chocolate – Peanut Butter Tart. Thank God for coffee, because these desserts were decadent! The zeppole were surprisingly light, the others not so much. This is not a complaint. After our plates were cleared, we lingered and talked, never feeling rushed. It was another excellent culinary experience with wonderful ambiance. On an otherwise cold and dark winter night, Turtle + the Wolf provided a memorably warm experience.

The King’s Kitchen – Dining with a cause

Charlotte, NC. I don’t often get here, but covering a meeting for a colleague brought me to town for a quick overnight. Such a trip begs the obvious question: where am I going to eat? There are plenty of options, but as I perused options, one restaurant caught my eye for more than just their food and a hopefully great experience – The King’s Kitchen.

Nestled right in the heart of downtown Charlotte, The King’s Kitchen looks like any other trendy spot. Hip lighting (around the bar the shades are colorful strainers) sleek white tables and walls, light marble bar, hardwood floors. Staff dressed in white, just a cool vibe all around. Unlike any other trendy spot, this is a restaurant with a mission, and that mission goes far beyond the cuisine. The King’s Kitchen is a non-profit organization. Noted on their website and on the menu is the fact that all proceeds from their service go to feed the less fortunate in the Charlotte area. Wow. Additionally, all of the ingredients are locally sourced. Southern comfort food in an upscale setting, all for a good cause.

I was greeted with a smile and shown to a seat at the bar (as a table for one, this is usually where I like to end up). The bartender greeted me as well and presented the menu. The wine and beer menu was diverse, but there was an option that caught my eye immediately: a flight of local drafts. There are six taps, so pick four and you’re off. Not being from the area, we had a conversation about it. I’m typically a Yuengling and Guinness guy with a touch of IPA. My barkeep took it from there. 3C’s IPA was first up, followed by a number of OMB drafts; and amber lager, Pecan Brown, and a porter, all four brewed within 10 minutes of where I was sitting, the definition of local. Now to be fair, I was fighting the tail end of a head cold, but what I tasted was delightful. The IPA was hoppy, but not too hoppy (not at hoppy as a Founder’s All Day IPA for example). The Amber Lager drank much like a Yuengling, which is my personal go to beer. The Pecan Brown and Porter also did not disappoint. All four helped accompany the onslaught of delightful dishes that followed.

After spending a few minutes looking at the menu, we were off to the races with starters. I had three in mind, but asked for some guidance on narrowing the field. Without hesitation, the staff favorites were the fried oysters and the pimento cheese. Ok, I’m game, make it so good sir. When I tell you the service was prompt, it would be a remarkable understatement. It seemed that I had no sooner put down the menu and returned to my beverage of choice when a bowl brimming with tender fried oysters appeared. I was able to get one in my mouth just prior the the board carrying the pimento cheese and crostini. I’m a sucker for a good oyster in any form. Raw, fried, broiled, grilled, Rocky Mountain, whatever. The key to a great fried oyster, in my not so humble opinion, is crisp batter that holds onto a juicy oyster inside. These nailed it. First envision if you will a bowl of no less than a dozen oysters, half a lemon, and a small container of remoulade. some micro greens gracing the top, and that’s it. Simple presentation. Now how does one test the first key standard for a fried oyster? Pick it up with your hands! To the touch they were plump, not greasy, and the batter held onto the oyster like a child holds onto their blanket. I always try the first one naked, no sauce, just a slight squeeze of lemon. Pure.Bliss. Masked by the perfectly crisp batter was a plump, juicy, briny oyster; fresh and salty from the sea. This was a true delight. Another with a quick dip in the remoulade and another wonderful treat. I could go all night on these, but then there was that lump of orange goodness over there on the board next to my beer…

Pimento cheese is an interesting dish. As I write I’m still not totally sure what’s in it, but I know from a certain Californian friend I met in New Jersey by way of Cincinnati (follow that?) its a southern classic. It was a treat for sure. Creamy and spreadable, on toasted bread, pairing well with the Amber Lager, and surprisingly with the oysters as well. There was not chance I would finish this and still have dinner, but it was a great sampling. The oysters, on the other hand, were all to die that night. Amazing. I can still taste them as I sit on a plane to go home, and I’m pretty sure I just drooled on myself. Hope the guy next to me doesn’t notice.

Continuing to ponder the menu I had a number of choices. Fried chicken was high on the list, as was the pot roast. Apparently the scallops were delicious and the pork chop looked like it was to die for. But I was in Charlotte, and I made it clear I was at the mercy of my faithful Bart ender, and he didn’t steer me wrong. If I wanted the true experience, he said, I had to try the shrimp and grits. Now I’ve had shrimp and grits in New Jersey and most of the time it’s been fine, even delicious. To have it here, however, was altogether different. Again faster than I could have my water refilled my meal was presented. A modest bowl was placed before me. Creamy grits sat atop a shallow pool of tomato pan sauce, topped with six shrimp (peeled and tails removed) with some smoked ham bits in and among the grits for obvious porky flavor. My first bite was the grits. These were different, nothing like what we pass off for grits at home. While creamy they had distinct texture and a firmness that held up in the sauce. They were rich and flavorful, and when paired with the sauce and a touch of the ham, were a savory morsel. The only thing missing at this point was the shrimp, so onto the fork one goes and we have the perfect bite. The shrimp were cooked perfectly as well. Good bite, lightly seasoned, a wonderful compliment to the hominy cloud on which they were presented.

As the meal continued a conversation began among the other solo diners at the bar and I. Both were northeastern transplants to the south. One young man was two weeks into his Charlotte residency, while the other was a mother originally from Philadelphia, now in Tampa, in town for work. We discussed food, travel, out northern roots, and of course the meal we were all enjoying. As an added bonus, Kings Kitchen was mostly gluten free, which was necessary for one oh my accidental dining partners. We all lingered a bit and talked, engaging the staff at several points, while in the background other parties laughed and dined with classic Christmas music filling in the rest. A warm goodbye from our hosts wrapped up the night as we each departed. Accidental comradorie, a wonderful meal, and a worthy cause. When in Charlotte, make a point to visit The Kings Kitchen. It will impact your culinary senses, and the community which is serves daily.

Only 12 months left to plan

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday to host.  I mean let’s face it, I love hosting any event, but Thanksgiving in particular brings me all the warm and fuzzies.  As with many of my childhood memories, my love for all things turkey and family goes back to my Grandparents.  From the time I was born until I was 33 (with the exception of 1 year), I spent every Thanksgiving (and Christmas Eve) at my Grandparents house.  It wasn’t until Nick and I moved in together and we sold my Grandparents house that I began hosting Thanksgiving in my home.

On Thanksgiving morning, I would wake up at my Dad’s house and we would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  We would leave his house at around 11:15am, and walk into my Grandparents just before Santa Claus came down the parade route into Herald’s Square.  The house was warm with the smell of the turkey in the oven.  The dinner table was always set and waiting for all of the delicious food that would soon be atop it.  Walking into the kitchen, there were appetizers and wine on the table.  There was a calm in the house and everything was tidy.  You’d never know that my Grandparents had just spent 3 days preparing a meal for 10-12 people.  It was incredible and I loved it.

Many, many years later, when I was in my late 20’s, I started to help my Grandparents prepare/cook for Thanksgiving and finally learned the secret to their success.  It’s all about the prep.  My Grandmother would start on Monday by making the pie crusts for the Pumpkin and Apple pies and the cranberry sauce.  On Tuesday she would make the pies.  Wednesday was the busiest day – washing vegetables, preparing all of the other side dishes, cleaning out the turkey.  Once Thursday came, all of the hard work was done and it was a matter of getting things into the oven at the right moment so that they would all get on the table at the same time.  My Grandmother had been preparing a Thanksgiving dinner since she and my Grandfather were first married, and she had always run the show like this. Even when my Grandmother was still working, she would prep like this when she got home from her day job.  And this was how they ran any holiday or family event.  Anytime we were going to my Grandparents house, when we walked in that door, my Grandparents greeted us and were ready to host.  It was how I learned how to host, and why I start the prep for Thanksgiving, or any family event, days before company is set to arrive.  Once my company shows up, I want as much prepared as possible so that I too can enjoy the time together.  La famiglia; that’s what it’s all about.

So, I’m sharing my tips/tricks to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner, but they are transferable ideas that you can use when hosting any holiday or family gathering.  The steps are simple:

1 Create a menu

2 Create a shopping list

3 Prepare what you can in advance

4 Prepare your home

5 Sit back and enjoy your company

Without further ado, my Thanksgiving prep:

1 week before Thanksgiving:

Create your menu.  I mostly make the same dishes every year, but typically like to add a new item or slightly alter one of my staple dishes.  It all depends on who’s coming (i.e. are there any picky eaters?), and how many people I’m having.  Then there are the dishes that are staples and I will likely always serve them just the way that my Grandmother did.  In fact there was only one of those dishes on my table this Thanksgiving – my Gram’s Sweet Potato Bake.  It’s fresh yams, with oats/brown sugar/butter/cranberries folded in, and then mini marshmallows melted on top.  I had an Aunt who used to scrape all of the marshmallows off.  She is no longer invited to Thanksgiving dinner.

Create your shopping list.  I tend to write and re-write my list a few times so that all of the produce is together, all of the dairy is together, etc.  If you’re not a Type A personality, then simply create your list however it works best for you.

Buy your Tupperware.  Everybody likes leftovers!  Make sure you have Tupperware that you can fill with leftovers for people to take home.

Saturday before:

Take your turkey out of the freezer.  Depending on the size of your bird(s), you may need to take it out of the freezer and put it into the refrigerator as early as Saturday.  It typically takes around 24 hours for each 4-5lbs of frozen turkey you are thawing in the fridge.

Monday before:

Go food shopping.  I can’t stress this point enough – go food shopping as  early in the morning as you can.  I tend to be there when they are opening the doors.  Get in and get out. That’s how you survive the holiday supermarket crazies.

Make your cranberry sauce.  I’ll never understand why people buy canned or jarred cranberry sauce when it’s so easy to make on your own.  Take a bag of fresh cranberries (they’ll be all over the produce section of your supermarket the week of Thanksgiving), a cup of sugar, some orange zest, and a tablespoon or 2 of water and cook over low-medium heat until the cranberries burst.  That’s it.  No need to get fancy here because nobody eats it anyway!  Also, leftovers are great on some Brie and phyllo dough.  Or wrapped in a crescent roll.  I digress.

Make your pie crusts.  Another thing that’s so easy to make, but people buy them.  It’s flour, shortening and ice cold water.  That’s it!  Once they’re made, wrap the dough in plastic wrap an leave in the fridge overnight.

Tuesday before:

Make your pies.  Pumpkin, apple, whatever.  Make it, bake it, let it cool and put it in the fridge until Thursday.

Wash and prep your vegetables.  You can prep all of your vegetables (except potatoes) and put them in a ziplock with a few damp papertowels and they’ll be fine by the time you’re ready to make them on Thursday.

Dry out your bread for stuffing.  Tear/cut your bread into cubes and put it in a 300 degree oven for 35-45 minutes until it’s completely dried out.  Store it in a ziplock bag until Wednesday.

Wednesday before:

Clean your turkeys.  Take the turkeys out of the fridge and get them cleaned up and pre-seasoned.  Stuff them with paper towels, cover them with plastic wrap and put ‘em into the fridge until tomorrow.

Make your stuffing.  No explanation needed here.  You’ll be happy you already pre-washed and pre-chopped all of that celery and onion though.

Make any other sides.  For 2017, I made my sweet potato bake, green been casserole (no cream of mushroom soup here!) and goat cheese mashed potatoes the day before Thanksgiving.  Take a look at your recipes – you’ll be surprised how much you can do the day before.  If you’re making brussel sprouts with bacon, cut up the bacon today.  If you’re using breadcrumbs in/on top of any dishes, make those.  If you’re making a signature cocktail, make that.  There’s a lot you can do in advance and come Thursday morning, you’ll be happy you did.

Set your table.  No explanation needed, but don’t forget the wine glasses and water glasses.

Gather your serving dishes, bowls, utensils.  Most of what you’ve already prepared will likely be in the dish that you’re going to serve it in on Thanksgiving.  That being said, you’ll need something for your turkey to go on, dishes or bowls for the vegetable sides you’re making, or for the appetizers you might be serving.  And ofcourse, you need something to serve all of this food with!  So grab the serving forks, spoons, etc that you’ll need for the day as well and put them on the table.

Review your recipes, create a schedule for the oven.  Take a few quick minutes to do a once over on your recipes for the sides you need to make on Thanksgiving.  Also, take a few more moments to make a quick note (mental or on paper) about what has to go in the oven at what time so that all of the food gets on the table at the same time.  I am supremely lucky in that I have two ovens, and this year Nick smoked one turkey and fried one, so I had both ovens to utilize all day.  If you only have one oven and have to roast your turkey, then you are definitely going to want to take the time to go through this step.

Put coffee into the coffee pot.  No really, do it.  When you’re in the middle of cleaning up the epic amount of dishes from dinner, you’ll be glad you did.

Put all of your dessert dishes, coffee cups into a convenient place.  Again, so that you don’t have to go running around for this stuff after dinner.

Set up your bar.  If you’re family is a bunch of boozehounds like mine, get your bar set up with mixers, bar ware, cups/glasses, etc.  Pull the wine that you plan on drinking throughout the day, or for dinner, and put it out on the table.

THURSDAY!

And here we are on Thursday.  All of the hard work is over!  Take the morning to enjoy the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with a cup of coffee and relax a bit. About 30 minutes before your guests arrive, start the music, light your candles (if using), open the wine, and put your appetizers out, if serving, 15 minutes or so before you expect guests.  Things will get a little crazy as you start putting things into the oven and pulling them out, but at this point you’ll have people around to help you.  While you’re pre-made side dishes are in the oven, cook your vegetables and make your gravy.  Another moment when you’ll be glad you prepped them in advance!

More than anything else, enjoy the day with your family!  That’s why you did all of the work ahead of time, so sit back, have a glass of wine and enjoy.  Cheers.