Category Archives: Holidays & Celebrations

heart-healthy red salad for your valentine

It’s not often that you’ll see me extolling a dish for its hearth healthy qualities. It’s not that I don’t care about good health, it’s more that I prefer to focus on eating a diet that is balanced, with the philosophy that “all things in moderation” will render it unnecessary to have to specifically seek out recipes that are low cholesterol or low fat or whatever. But at the beginning of this year, Marvin let it be known that he’d like us to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains. He specifically requested whole grain salads, which I already make from time to time and which are great for quick lunches when you have the hectic schedule of a freelance photographer.

I happily obliged by adapting a recipe from Once Upon a Tart (a great cookbook for soups and side salads) with wheatberries, beets and pomegranate. The recipe instructs you to fold in the beets and pomegranate at the end so they don’t stain the salad, but I wanted the dramatic, deep reddish-magenta hue to soak into the wheatberries… so much prettier and seasonally appropriate. The salad is quite good as it is, but even better with a little crumbled feta or fresh goat cheese on top. (This I would add at the last minute though, since I draw the line at pink cheese.) Although there’s no reason not to make this any time of the year, it would make a dramatic Valentine side dish- I plan to serve it alongside a venison tenderloin tomorrow. And you can serve it feeling comforted in the knowledge that you’re not potentially bringing about your loved one’s early demise with rich foods. If you do have a decadent main dish or dessert planned, no worries- it’s all about balance.

Wheatberry Salad with Beets, Pomegranate & Cherries (loosely adapted from Once Upon a Tart)
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Prep time: 15 minutes/ Cook time: 30 minutes (inactive)/ Serves 8 as a side dish

2 cups wheatberries, rinsed
1 lb beets, peeled with a vegetable peeler and quartered
¼ cup dried cherries, chopped (cranberries may be substituted)
1 shallot, minced
seeds and juice of 1 pomegranate
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
2 Tbs olive oil plus additional for roasting beets
½ tsp salt plus additional for cooking
2 tsp minced fresh thyme
a few turns of black pepper
optional: 2 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese

Preheat oven to 425°. Toss the beets with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a foil-covered baking sheet. Roast until they are easily pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the wheatberries in a medium pot with a lid. Cover with plenty of cold, salted water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until done (about 20 minutes)- they should yield to the tooth but remain pleasantly chewy. Drain, return to the pot, add the cherries or cranberries and cover (this helps plump the fruit).

While the beets and wheatberries are cooking, combine the shallot, pomegranate juice, vinegar, and salt. You can do this in the bowl you plan to serve the salad in.

When the beets have cooled enough to handle, cut them into ½-inch dice. Place all ingredients except olive oil in a serving dish and stir well to combine, adding the olive oil after the wheatberries have had a chance to soak up some of the vinegar and pomegranate juice. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt, vinegar or pepper as needed. If desired, serve with crumbled feta or goat cheese on top.

meyer lemon pound cake with lemon cream

My in-laws are serious eaters. At all the gatherings I’ve attended, the quantities of food would make the Two Fat Ladies blush, and we always come home with several containers of leftovers. This Christmas was no exception! My mother in law hosted Christmas Eve, as is getting to be the tradition. She veered away from the usual Puerto Rican fare this year (roast pork, arroz con gandules) and went Mexican, making posole, ceviche and nopales (cactus) salad. One of his cousins brought an interesting new (to me) PR dish of chicken gizzards cooked with green bananas and a few green olives (something like this except it was served warm instead of like a salad). The dish is an unglamorous greyish color, but the flavor was great and the gizzards were much more tender than when I’ve made them. It re-inspired me to try making gizzards again after an unsuccessful attempt last summer.

With all this great food in such abundance, it’s always hard to know what to bring. My MIL never wants to assign me a dish; she always demurs, saying that there will be enough food, or to just bring “whatever I want”.  I know this is because she doesn’t want to impose, but I have somewhat mixed feelings about it… she knows I like to cook; I’m part of the family now; shouldn’t that warrant a side dish assignment? To be fair, for all I know she does the same with all the other relatives and they just bring whatever they feel like. But a small part of me would be flattered to be entrusted with something specific.

In the end, I just decided to make a dessert… you can never have too many, especially with his family’s sweet tooth! I didn’t feel like leaving the house for groceries, so I “shopped my pantry” and made a Meyer lemon pound cake with a lemon cream (lemon curd + whipped cream) to go on top. Although I’m not the biggest dessert/ cake person, I do love citrus (see these posts) and almost always have lemons in the house! I wasn’t sure if its simplicity would be appreciated, but to my delight it was almost gone by the end of the night, when richer and sweeter offerings remained.

This recipe is from The Gourmet Cookbook, one I turn to often when I’m looking for a recipe that’s traditional yet updated. The method is simple, and you can certainly serve the cake as-is with the lemon glaze rather than making the lemon cream (although you need to zest all those lemons anyway, so you may as well use them). I did an easy curd where you mix everything and cook it together rather than tempering the eggs; it seemed to work about the same. You’ll want to strain it for textural reasons, but that’s about the fussiest part of the recipe. And I know a heavy cake recipe is probably the last thing you’re looking for right now, but you never know when you might decide to have people over for tea, or when you might need an easy recipe for your next get-together with your in-laws.

(Meyer) lemon pound cake (adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl)
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I made this cake with fragrant Meyer lemons, but regular lemons will do just fine. However, you will likely need more lemons for the curd if you don’t use Meyers, which tend to be much juicier.

for the cake:
2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
zest of 5 lemons (about ¼ cup)
2 sticks (½ lb) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup whole milk

for the glaze:
1 cup plus 1 Tbs powdered sugar
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Lightly grease and flour a 2-quart kugelhopf pan or bundt pan (a neutral-flavored cooking spray works well to get in the nooks & crannies). Knock out excess flour. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325°.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and zest. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer or with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; then add vanilla. Reduce mix speed to low and beat in ⅓ of the flour, the milk, another ⅓ of the flour, the lemon juice, and the remaining flour, beating until just combined and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan (place on a baking sheet for easier transport in and out of the oven) and bake until top is browned and a skewer or knife inserted into the center comes out clean (original recipe specified 45-55 minutes but mine took about an hour and 10 minutes). Meanwhile, make glaze by combining powdered sugar and lemon juice until sugar is fully dissolved.

Cool cake in the pan for 15 minutes (see photo- a wine bottle works well for this). Invert on a rack and allow to cool completely before glazing. Put cake on a serving plate and pour glaze over top, allowing it to drip down the sides. If storing for later use, allow glaze to set before covering. This cake keeps well for several days if wrapped and refrigerated; allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Lemon Curd/ Lemon Cream (adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)
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Note: in Dorie’s book, she uses the term “lemon cream” to refer to a variation on lemon curd containing a higher ratio of butter.

1 ¼ cups sugar
1 egg
6 egg yolks
6 Tbs butter, cut into 6 pieces
freshly squeezed juice of 4 lemons (use 5 or even 6 if lemons are dry)
optional: 1 pint heavy whipping cream

Whisk together all ingredients in a medium heavy saucepan. Place over medium low heat and cook, stirring vigorously and constantly, until butter melts and mixture starts to thicken (original recipe says 4-6 minutes but I’ve never had mine cook that fast). The curd is done when you can make a track with your finger on a spoon or spatula and the curd doesn’t run into the track. It will look thin, but thicken as it cools. If desired, for a smoother texture, strain curd while still warm through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Press plastic wrap over the top so a skin doesn’t form, and cool in the refrigerator.

To make lemon cream, whip cream with beaters or a stand mixer until it has body, but before it becomes firm. When curd has fully cooled, stir in whipped cream to taste- less for a more pronounced lemon flavor and more for a milder, creamier flavor.

a december to remember

(or, “how I attempt to fit a month’s worth of blogging into one post”…)

Vintage home goods by Hugh at the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar

Did I really let the whole month of December go by without posting a single time? I guess that’s what will happen when you decide to plan a big event in early December AND take on a few freelance jobs in addition to attempting to supply the metro area with homemade jam for their gift-giving needs.

The main room at Food Bazaar- the Beau Bien table is at lower left

At the risk of sounding like one of those end-of-year holiday letters, allow me to recap for posterity. I brought the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar back this year, dubbing it the “2nd annual”, so I guess I’m committed to making it a yearly event now! It was quite a bit bigger than last year’s, with 26 vendors (as opposed to 16) and a much larger venue, in an unfinished space above Cost Plus Wines in Eastern Market. The evening wasn’t without hitches (just ask my friend James), but considering my inexperience with event planning and the “rustic”, on-the-down-low nature of the event, I’d say it was a pretty slamming success. We added more prepared-food vendors as well as some tables (borrowed from Tashmoo- thanks Suzanne & Aaron!) where people could take in the city views from the large front windows. It will be an interesting challenge to see where things go next year- I think the Bazaar has already outgrown something that can be sustained as an underground endeavor, so I’ll likely have to figure out how to proceed “above board” (i.e. pulling permits, etc) while keeping the spirit and purpose of the original event.

A selection of chocolate truffles from Pete’s Chocolates

Naturally fermented pickles by Suddenly Sauer

Incidentally, thanks to my pal Evan over at Gourmet Underground Detroit for the food bazaar photos, since I was too busy running around to take any. If you check out this post, you can see a slideshow with more pics from the bazaar as well as the GUDetroit holiday party. The first image in the slideshow is from a fun little photo shoot we did at our house. Update: I just came across another Food Bazaar slideshow on the Drought Juice website here- nice pics, ladies!

A sampling of our jams

Seeing as how Beau Bien sold out of product at the Food Bazaar, the weeks between 12/9 and Christmas were kept busy scrambling to fill holiday orders. Big ups to my partner Molly who really kept the ship afloat while I was tied up at my desk job! We have big goals for 2012, so stay tuned on that.

A shopper browses Marvin‘s (mostly) food photos at the Bazaar

Speaking of desk jobs, as of right now I have 12 more weeks until I will officially be self-employed. Eek! I’ve always felt deep down that I’d be best suited to work for myself; I’m anxious to test that theory. I’ll continue to do freelance writing and recipe development as well as take Beau Bien to the next level… Scary but exciting!

After the blur of Food Bazaar and jam-making, the final days before Christmas were still full-steam-ahead as I got last-minute gifts and planned holiday food. Christmas Eve (or “Puerto Rican Christmas” as I call it) was spent at my mother in law’s and, like always, the food was spectacular (more about this in my next post). The next day we were off to Okemos to see my dad. We had a venison ham, which was new to me, and smoked turkey. Since we had to travel, I opted for simplicity and made a spinach salad and some brussels sprouts. I’ve been making b-sprouts this new way, in a skillet with bacon, mustard diluted with a little stock, and caraway seeds (shredded cabbage is also good with this combo). I like to think it pays homage to my German side, although I have no idea if Germans would put caraway seeds in a vegetable dish. Either way, the dish was well-received even by the brussels sprouts skeptics.

My birthday, 12/27, was 24 hours of fun (ahem… literally). I really am getting too old to celebrate like that anymore! It started off innocently enough, with a small brunch at our place with my siblings and a few friends. After a leisurely afternoon we hit Roast happy hour and didn’t look back… an obligatory trip to the Sugar House was next, followed by the Lager House to see some bands, and ending up at Northern Lights. The party carried on back at the house, where we finished up a previously started euchre game in true Lothamer style.

Gaylord, MI | photo by Marvin Shaouni

After all of that celebrating and running around, it was heavenly to spend a few relaxing days up north with friends for New Year’s (hey, at my age, partying is getting to be hard work!). It was the most down time I’ve had in ages- I actually got to read a fair bit (this and this), we cooked, made fires, went sledding, cuddled with canines, played cards, drank wine, saw a movie, and soaked in the fairy-tale atmosphere of a Michigan winter surrounded by snow-laden pine trees (pretty magical in a place with floor-to-ceiling windows).

Aaron & Riley

So now it’s back to the grind, at least until April, and then it’ll be a hustle instead of a grind. As one of my goals for 2012, I’m going to try my best to get back in the swing of regular blogging- as my friend MK likes to say, “It’s easy to start a blog; it’s hard to keep one going”. In fact, I’m working on a new layout and design and hope to launch the blog under my own URL in the next couple months (I’ve owned simmerdownfood.com for over a year but for the time being it just redirects here).  Lots of things in the works, people. I hope all of you have exciting plans and projects for this year as well, and I wish you all a happy New Year! More recipe posts coming very soon.

we got married

It’s been a month and a half since Marvin and I tied the knot on a beautiful September day in Detroit. I’ve been meaning to share, but it was such an overwhelming experience that I needed to process and digest the day first; to savor and keep it to myself for a little while. Besides, the hardest posts to write are the ones where I have the most to say… where to begin, where to end, what to edit in and out.

Challenging as it may be to distill the event into a handful of photos and words, this blog is about the role of food in all parts of my life, and there are few food-related occasions more important than a wedding feast! Sharing a meal, your first as husband and wife, with all of your closest friends and family members… quite a few of whom happen to be pretty particular in the food and drink department. Add to that our reputation as bon vivants and aficionados of good eats, and the bar was set pretty high.

I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want a standard catered meal with a choice of “chicken or beef”. Most of the reception venues around town had in-house caterers or required you to work with a certain caterer, so those were out. We wanted to do a pig roast, but where? The answer presented itself when we went to the Ford Piquette Plant (T-Plex), now a museum, to do a group photo for Gourmet Underground Detroit. I started chatting with Pat, a full-time volunteer, who told me about some of the other weddings and events they’d held. I knew right away from her attitude that this was the right place- she was pretty much willing to let us do whatever we wanted with the space, and the price was right.

We got the meat locked in- a pig roast by J&M, a farm out of Almont, MI (I’m heartbroken that no one to my knowledge took any photos of the pig- if you did, please send them my way!!), and mesquite-grilled chicken from Los Gallos in Southwest Detroit. But what to do for side dishes? I knew I didn’t want to go “barbecue” or picnic-style sides; not that I don’t like coleslaw and mac & cheese, but for this special an occasion, I wanted something a bit less ordinary. I checked with a couple caterers and the prices were ridiculous, so I approached my friend Will Branch, who owns Corridor Sausage Co. Although he doesn’t do catering on a regular basis, I knew that he had catered events here and there in the past and the food was always great. Plus, instead of picking from a set menu of items, we were able to totally customize things by meeting with him and his partner Tenley Lark a couple times to brainstorm and then refine the menu. It was really a collaborative effort, which worked out well- we wanted to contribute ideas, but trusted Will and Tenley to carry out their vision for the actual recipes. We ended up going with a slightly tropical/Latino theme, incorporating dishes like arroz con gandules (Puerto Rican rice made by Marvin’s family), black beans, chimichurri sauce, pineapple-jicama salad and corn on the cob with ancho-lime butter (which I was afraid to eat, not wanting to tempt fate with staining my dress!) along with a couple summery items like heirloom tomato salad and green bean salad, taking advantage of the local harvest.

Will and Tenley did a great job with the hors d’oeuvres as well as the side dishes- this is Will’s forte, as most of his catering gigs have been cocktail parties. They did mini Spanish tortillas de patatas which they cut into little circles and served with a dab of creme fraiche, dates stuffed with blue cheese and Corridor Sausage’s lamb merguez, and the classic combo of melon and prosciutto, using the ham that I cured earlier this year (which we affectionately began referring to as “the nuptial ham”).

If the bar was set high for food, it was even more of a challenge in the beverage department- how to do drinks on a budget for that many people without serving swill? Luckily, thanks to some friend connections, we were able to get the wine and booze at near-wholesale prices, which helped immensely. We also saved money by offering two signature cocktails (a Manhattan and a Rum Swizzle, created for us by Dave at the Sugar House) rather than a full bar with standard mixers. Jarred helped out with wine suggestions that would compliment the food and please a large cross-section of palates. For beer, we went local with Bell’s Lager of the Lakes and hard cider from Motor City Brewing Works.

The evening wasn’t without hitches- we ran out of cava (3 cases- damn, people!) in less than an hour; a couple friends (Hi Evan! Hi Dave!) had to pitch in with bartending; dinner was slightly earlier than Will had planned for because people were  wandering upstairs to their tables ahead of schedule (maybe something to do with the booze running out?); but the guests didn’t seem to notice anything amiss; luckily, the unique setting was enough to distract them from any small snags. I found it really hard to just step back and enjoy myself and not go into Hostess Mode (“We’re out of cava?!” “There’s no water on the tables!”), but once I sat down, I tried to relax, mostly successfully. Given the fact that our reception venue had no kitchen or catering facilities, I think everyone did a remarkably good job!

After we were announced, we decided to cut the cake and do the first dances right away to buy Will and Tenley a little more time to set up the buffet. Dick, a volunteer at the museum, had the cool idea to wheel our cake out on the back of an antique flatbed truck. It was positioned in the back of the room and as soon as we walked in, they brought it to the center of the dance floor for us to cut. My mom had decorated the truck with “Just Married” signs and streamers… very cute! Our cake was from Pinwheel Bakery in Ferndale and we did two flavors, coconut cake with lime cream (like a curd but not quite as intense), and pistachio with chocolate and dulce de leche. I told Ann, the baker, to do whatever she wanted with the design of the cake since I was suffering from decision fatigue at that point and didn’t really care what it looked like. I was pretty happy with the result- to go with our “vintage travel” theme, she created little postcards to decorate the cake- although it was kind of funny because all night I had people asking about our trip to Hawaii (we’re actually going to Spain, but Hawaii would have been nice too). I didn’t get a chance to have a piece of cake, but all of the guests were raving about it; based on our tastings prior to the wedding, I have no doubt it was fabulous.

As most married couples will probably tell you, the evening was a blur. By the time we made the rounds of all the tables, it was probably 10:00 or 10:30- time to finally let loose a bit! My sympathies go out to brides like my friend Diane, who said she was so busy talking to her guests during her reception that she never got to dance at all. I don’t think that would have even been an option for me, since people kept dragging me onto the dance floor. Even Marvin, who “doesn’t dance”, was out there most of the latter part of the evening. A couple of those Manhattans may have had something to do with it! I was happy to see our guests working up their appetites for the taco bar we put out as a snack, pairing the leftover roast pork with some salsa and guacamole from Mexicantown’s Honeybee Market.

I don’t think there’s any other event in life that you prepare for so much in proportion to its actual duration. I wish I could have slowed down time to be able to remember more details. Instead, I mostly remember a series of impressions rather than distinct moments. Luckily, the photographs (taken by our talented friend Elizabeth Conley) help to recall specific points in time. But even watching short video clips, it still seems dream-like, as if I’m watching someone else and not us.

Now that the wedding is over, I thought I would have so much more free time, but I’m just as busy as ever, mostly with planning this year’s Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar. Life marches on! I also have our honeymoon to plan, which I strategically booked for April so that I could have something else to look forward to after the wedding was over. Besides, I actually enjoy travel planning, and wanted to savor that experience without it being all mixed up with wedding stress and deadlines.

In addition to menu planning/ overseeing the food and drinks, I also designed my own dress, tea-stained the lace and my shoes, made about 100 jars of jam (with help from Molly) for the favors, made the place cards and table signs (names of French streets in Detroit), got old family wedding photos together for a display, and took care of several more details I can’t even remember anymore. Although going the DIY route was more work than I could ever have imagined, in retrospect I don’t think I could have done it any other way (ahem… control freak… ahem). I’m actually glad that I didn’t realize how much work it would be when I started, because I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it! In the end, though, it was worth it for all the people who told me it was one of the most memorable and unique weddings they had ever been to. Unless you’re a super-organized Type A person and you start way ahead of time, I wouldn’t recommend doing this type of wedding or event without at least some help- I hired MeMe Design & Events to assist with some of the design and decor elements. She was mainly in charge of the room layout/ draping and put the tables together, but did so much more, coordinating vendors and taking care of lots of little details I may not have thought of. I also had help from many family members and friends- you know who you are, and thank you all from the bottom of my heart! I very literally could not have pulled it off without you.

There’s so much more I could say about the day, the planning, what worked and what didn’t, but this post is already running long- if anyone has questions or wants advice on planning a wedding or event, though, please ask away in the comments, I’m more than happy to share my trial-and-error experiences!

All photographs in this post courtesy of EGC Photography.

dîner en blanc, detroit style

It began with a mysterious email from James last week titled “secret dinner”. Someone in Detroit was throwing a dîner en blanc- did we know about it? Were we going?  Not yet, and absolutely. James’s invite had come in the mail* from an unknown source, instructing him to invite 10 people who could also each invite 10 people. White linens, real tableware and formal all-white dress were specified. We were instructed to arrive on Belle Isle at 5pm; a Champagne toast would be provided at 6:30. We were not to discuss the event with anyone other than invited guests.

*Update 8/22/11: I picked up mail from my old house today, and can you guess what was in the pile? My very own printed invitation to the event. Still no clue who sent it, but that eliminates any close friends/ acquaintances since whomever sent it didn’t know I moved 6 months ago!

We began organizing in earnest, coordinating who would bring what food, chairs, tables, etc. Due to the last minute nature of the invitation, many of our friends were out of town or otherwise engaged. However, when our contingent assembled at Supino in the Eastern Market to make our way toward Belle Isle, we were a respectable 15 strong. The earliest to arrive sipped Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza and Domaine de la Pepière Muscadet from paper cups while we awaited the other guests. The anticipation mounted as the pizzeria became a hive of activity- James slicing up his home-cured coppa; Christina baking bread and grabbing jars of Detroit Zymology Guild’s pickled asparagus from the basement. We chatted and checked out each other’s all-white outfits, a rather strange sight in this group. We weren’t all in formal wear by a long shot (the guys actually outdid the women in this department, with three or four natty suits in the group), but our ensembles respected the spirit if not the letter of the invitation. We gazed upward at the drizzling sky, hoping the rain would abate but thankful for no thunderstorms and determined to have a party regardless.

Once all were present, our merry caravan made its way east with tables, chairs, linens and what seemed like several metric tons of food and wine. As we approached the western tip of the island, we were surprised to find that we were forced to park a good quarter mile from the site, and marveled over the number of other white-garbed picnickers (none of whom we knew) heading in the same direction. Upon arrival, a festive tableau awaited- rows of tables outfitted with white tablecloths, floral arrangements and fine china, with diners of all (adult) ages decked out in pale finery.

We began to set up our tables only to quickly discover that we had brought far too much food to be able to actually sit down and eat at the table, let alone have proper place settings. I felt a bit let down at having failed at this part of the instructions, but the feeling quickly subsided as I surveyed our generous spread. I remarked to the others that our group might be the scrappiest, eating standing up, several of us in thrift store attire, but there was no question we had the best food. It didn’t hurt that we had two of the city’s top chefs, a restaurant owner and several small food biz entrepreneurs in our gang.

As we settled in, a large man in a red shirt walked up to address the party at large, announcing himself as the head park ranger of Belle Isle. A ripple of anxiety passed through the crowd, but we needn’t have worried. He said he had been tipped off via email about the event, and wasn’t sure whether to call the cops or welcome us… so he opted for the latter. This brought a hearty round of applause. With a few words about the uniqueness of Belle Isle, he told us to enjoy our meals and was off.

With that, we were free to dig in. But where to start? A charcuterie platter with six kinds of meats, all homemade, would certainly work. Or perhaps one of the dozen or so cheeses? A trio of pâtés, so perfectly unblemished in their white ramekins, provided too much temptation to resist. And it went on- smoky grilled shrimp with fat chunks of lemon. Two colorful garden tomato salads. A bitter spoonful of radicchio sautéed with homemade guanciale. Luscious cured salmon salad with crème fraîche. Collards and artichokes in red Thai curry with a side of quinoa. A taste of my own offerings- savory zucchini bread and roasted garlic herb custards with tomato coulis (recipes to be posted soon). And despite sampling all of that and more, you best believe I left room for Christina’s rustic peach tartlets. My apologies to my friends for my temporary utter loss of vocabulary- all I could manage in between bites was “oh my God” and “this is ridiculous”, repeated like a bum vinyl record. The sky pissed weakly for almost the entire dinner, but other than a little frizzy-haired vanity it mattered little.

The toast came and went but no Champagne materialized, at least not where we were sitting. This was more than fine though, as we had our hands full with Oregon pinots and gamays and James’s homemade orange wine (not made from oranges, but with a slight orange hue due to being left on the skins). Somewhere in the midst of the feeding frenzy, Marvin showed up with his camera, and before long we were assembled at the island’s prow with the city skyline as our backdrop. I took the break from the table as an opportunity to say hello to some other friends who had been invited independently of our contingent- like us, they had no idea who had planned the event, or at least that’s what they claimed.

We ate and drank and laughed as the sun set, my cue to pack up. (I heard from those who stayed longer that they were “escorted” off the island by the park rangers, whose leader may have regretted his magnanimity.) In the end, it didn’t really matter who organized the dinner, or if we followed the rules to a tee (although I admit I am a person who appreciates the beauty of rules and order as well, and was slightly jealous of the folks with the flower-bedecked tables and fancy dress). We enjoyed one of the few remaining summer Sundays in lively company, and with some of the best food and drink to be had in the city. It may not have been as grand as Paris or New York’s, but I tip my hat to the anonymous planner of Detroit’s first dîner en blanc and hope it may be the first of many such happenings, secret or not. I won’t say I don’t appreciate a little mystery and drama, but for me, it’s all about the food and friends.

All photos © Noelle Lothamer 2011.

end of an era

A few weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted something about how she “doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving”.  I replied asking why on earth one would abstain from Thanksgiving- it has all the fun aspects of Christmas (family, food, leisure, more food…) with none of the frantic, harried running around.  I don’t think I’ve ever had to set foot in a mall to buy anything for Thanksgiving.  And it’s always a four-day weekend… not even Christmas can guarantee that!

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the gift-giving tradition of the Christmas holiday, but sometimes it seems to eclipse everything else.  As long as I can nave a nice meal and a lot of lazing around afterward, I’m pretty content.  This Thanksgiving was exactly that- outstanding culinary contributions from the whole family (I really think it gets better every year), great company, and a little Dance Dance Revolution after our food had settled and everyone had had enough wine not to care if they looked silly.

My mom surprised me with an early birthday cake and gift since she won’t be here on my birthday.  She made a scrapbook with tons of old childhood photos, all with clever captions that must have taken her many, many hours to put together.  Looking through it, and looking around me, I couldn’t help but be a bit melancholy that this would probably be one of the last holidays we’d all celebrate with the entire family.  With siblings getting married and being pulled in different directions, we’ll have to start taking turns with what in-laws to visit and inevitably not everyone will be able to come to each gathering.  I know it’s just a fact of growing older but for a close knit family like ours, it will be a difficult transition.

That said, I am ready to embrace life’s changes rather than dwell on what has passed.  Marvin and I will be moving into our new home in the next month if all goes according to plan, and we hope to host next year’s Thanksgiving celebration (or maybe even Easter, who knows!).  Although change can be stressful at times, I look forward to all the new joys and challenges that will come with combining our households.

One thing I  definitely look forward to with having our new house is not having to travel for every get-together if we get to host! This year, I had to work Wednesday and get up early Thanksgiving day to drive, so in lieu of cooking something I made a big fancy salad.  I combined wintry flavors of radicchio and pear, with pistachios to give extra color and crunch.  Like any composed salad, I think it looks prettiest and is easiest to serve on a platter so that you can distribute the ingredients more equitably and don’t end up with, say, all the nuts at the bottom of the bowl.

I stuffed myself silly on homemade bacon-wrapped “poppers” (see below) for an appetizer, mac and cheese, the best collard greens I’ve ever tasted, and the usual suspects like stuffing, potatoes, turkey and gravy.  I know I’m forgetting some items but it’s been two weeks already (when you read my next couple posts you’ll understand why it’s taken me that long to finish this)! To top it all off, my brother made a pecan pie, a pear and almond galette, and pumpkin empanadas.  My mom also made a pineapple upside down cake, which was a childhood favorite of mine, for my birthday. 

If you feel full just reading that, this salad makes a nice light supper to help balance out any holiday indulgences.

Note: First two photographs by Marvin Shaouni

Winter Salad with Pears & Pistachios

1 head red leaf lettuce
1 large shallot
½ a head of radicchio
2 Seckel pears or 1 ripe Bosc or Anjou pear
⅓ cup unsalted pistachios
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs Champagne vinegar or quality white wine vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Notes: I prefer Seckel pears because they slice into perfect bite sized pieces, but feel free to substitute another pear variety. Because many people expect a cheese in their composed salads, I did serve some crumbled blue cheese on the sde, but the salad has a nice character without it.

Slice the shallots, not too thin.  Soak them in a bowl of ice water while you prep other ingredients- this will make them nice and crunchy while also removing a bit of their sting.  Wash and dry the lettuce. Toast the pistachios over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until fragrant; set aside to cool. Remove the core from the radicchio and slice into thin shreds.  Core and slice the pears.  If doing this in advance of serving, toss the pears with a little of the vinegar you are using so they don’t turn brown.

In a bowl large enough to hold the lettuce, make the dressing: Add the olive oil, then the mustard, and whisk until incorporated; then add the vinegar (you may want more or less to taste) and whisk again until emulsified.  If the quantity of dressing looks too small for the amount of lettuce you have, tweak it by adding proportional amounts of oil and vinegar.  Add salt and pepper to taste- don’t be shy with the salt, as you are effectively salting the whole salad, not just the dressing.  Toss the lettuce in the dressing to coat.

Transfer the dressed lettuce to a platter and scatter over the radicchio, pears, shallots (drained), and pistachios.  Serve immediately. 

brussels sprouts with chestnuts for a harvest dinner

I was talking to my mom a couple weeks ago and she mentioned that she wanted to send my blog link to a friend, but it had been “so long” since I had last posted, that she didn’t have the link anymore (she gets the feed through email).  Yikes!  I’m certainly far from the days where I used to post two or even three times a week, but I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad.

The silver lining is that I’ve been occupied with other new and exciting projects, including some freelance writing for these publications, making jam and other treats for my fledgling company Beau Bien Fine Foods, organizing the first-ever (and I hope annual) Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar, and rehearsing and playing shows with Scarlet Oaks.  Are you tired just reading that?  Combined with house-hunting (we found one! More on this later…) and a full social calendar, I have barely had time to cook lately let alone photograph it or write about it.

When my good friend and Beau Bien business partner Molly organized a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at her place, I was determined not to let the opportunity pass since I had to cook a dish to bring anyway.  I had some peeled, roasted chestnuts from the shipment of goodies that Oh! Nuts sent me a few months back and I knew I wanted to incorporate those.  I recalled a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s Feast with brussels sprouts and chestnuts and used that as a guideline.  The combination of pancetta and brussels sprouts was not new for me, but the addition of chestnuts, marsala and a generous amount of parsley intrigued me.

I got up nice and early (8am) to make sure I had plenty of time to run errands, cook, take pictures, get ready, etc, but was foiled by Michigan’s now-overturned law that you can’t purchase alcohol before noon on Sundays… ugh.  That’s not the first time I’ve needed alcohol for Sunday cooking only to have to wait (I never said I was a good planner).  I ended up being about an hour late to the party due to the rushing around, but my stress was soon soothed with a delicious glass of bourbon milk punch made by my friend Todd.  If you’ve never had a milk punch, think eggnog-ish, but less cloying. As an added bonus, the milk was a delicious raw milk from a local cow share.

Dinner was a mix of old and new foods and friends. Molly’s sister and brother-in-law brought a turkey they smoked in their “egg”, with a subtly smoky flavor that didn’t overwhelm the other foods. The stuffing was made from wild rice and sausage, there was a green salad with fennel and orange, a fresh cranberry relish, and a great roasted cauliflower dish with capers and vinaigrette that, I’m sad to say, completely upstaged my slightly overcooked sprouts.  I’m totally cribbing that for the next potluck I attend (don’t worry Evan, Ill give you your due credit!).  For dessert, our friends Noah and Liz made sweet potato pie and apple pie. Where I found room for those I’ll never know, but I do know that if I ever make sweet potato pie I’m making it with graham cracker crust.  Another idea to appropriate.

After dinner we walked across Lafayette Park (erm, there may have been a bit of stumbling along with the walking- see above) in the unseasonable 65°weather over to Supino’s in Eastern Market, where some friends had broken down a pig and were having a party of sorts.  I’m regretting not taking the camera for that portion of the evening, and also regretting not having a second or third stomach to sample some of the treats that were being passed around (slices of pig kidney, anyone?).  Hopefully they will feel the experience bears repeating at a later date.  I still want to make blood sausage darnit!  For now, though, you’ll have to settle for these brussels sprouts… (hey, at least there’s pancetta in there.)

Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts & Pancetta (adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson)

2 lbs brussels sprouts
8 oz peeled roasted chestnuts
about 6 oz pancetta, diced (three medium-thick slices should yield this)
¼ cup marsala
large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
a couple Tbs olive oil or butter

Notes: The original recipe stipulates boiling the brussels sprouts whole and then adding them to the pan for a quick sauté, but my sprouts were a little on the mature side so I opted for the “shredded” version.  If you have smaller, tighter sprouts, I’d maybe go with the original version as it looks a bit prettier.  However, the shredded version does have a more homey, comfort-food appeal to it.

Wash and trim the brussels sprouts.  Cut in half lengthwise and cut a small notch to remove the toughest part of the stem.  Chop each half crosswise into three or four sections to “shred” them.

In a large skillet, sauté the pancetta over medium heat with the olive oil or butter.  (The pancetta will render some fat, but the additional fat emulsifies with the marsala later to become a “sauce” of sorts.)  When the meat is starting to brown but before it dries out, add the brussels sprouts.  They will release some moisture which will enable you to deglaze the pan.

Sauté, stirring frequently, until the thickest parts of the brussels sprouts are al dente.  Stir in the chestnuts, breaking them up with your spoon or spatula.  Raise the heat a little and add the marsala, stirring well.  As soon as it bubbles away, remove from the heat.   Stir in the parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.