My Oh My Blueberry Pie

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a huge fan of pie. Cake, not so much. It may stem from my childhood where the spinning glass pie cases were part of the front of restaurants. I’m partial to the countertop ones because you could get up close and personal with your slice before you even sat down.  Fruit pies, cream pies, nut pies – all displayed in their glory.

My grandfather had a diner type restaurant in my hometown’s downtown area – colloquially known as “upstreet”.  His restaurant was called Joe K’s - but the tagline was the best part – “Where the food’s ok.” I can speak, albeit completely biased, it was better than ok.  Joe K knew his way around the kitchen and knew your order when you stopped in for breakfast before work. You didn’t even have to order it, it just showed up in front of you. But as a kid, my favorite was burgers at Joe K’s. The waitress would take the little glass Coca-Cola bottle and flip over a glass on it. And the burgers were wonderful. But the best part was getting a slice of pie – that I always imagined my grandmother baking. She was one heck of a cook.  She learned her repertoire from her older sister Emma who had married an Italian.  So the Slovak cooking still crept in, but the Italian staples always made an appearance.  I remember her growing gorgeous tomatoes in her little garden plot. I remember her making hand cut noodles hanging them to dry over every surface in the kitchen – countertops and chair backs were not exempt.  But most of all I remember her sweet caring way.  So, wrapped up in all the pastry of a pie is emotion as well as sweetened peak-of-freshness fruit.

Her sister Ann, my namesake, would bring pie when she would come for Thanksgiving or a picnic.  She could bake up a storm.  If you still are blessed to have a grandmother around, sit down with them this summer and bake a pie.  You’ll find it easier than you think and, trust me, it always gets rave reviews.

I have been known to make my own pie crust using Martha Stewart’s Pate Brisee recipe, but in the busy world we live in I’m also a big fan of Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts.  They come two to a package and are a real timesaver.  In one of my crazy pregnancy moments, I proclaimed that before the baby was born, I needed to have a freezer full of pie crusts. So my sweet Mom spent an afternoon helping me load up the freezer. We all nest in our own special way, mine apparently involved pie.

My blueberry pie is a summer staple when the berries are their sweetest. I’ve also used frozen wild blueberries.  You can bake it in a standard pie dish (not a deep dish) or in a tart pan.

Blueberry Pie

1 package refrigerated pie dough, I use Pillsbury

3 pints blueberries, washed and drained

1/2 c flour

1 c sugar

1 T butter, cut into small pieces

zest of 1 lemon

1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg

1 egg

1/4 c heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400. Place one pie crust in the pie plate or tart pan.  Put blueberries in large bowl and sprinkle with flour. Once each blueberry is coated, add sugar, zest and nutmeg.  Pour into pie crust.  Dot with butter.

Crust shotMix the egg and cream. Brush the edge of the pastry crust with the egg and cream wash.  This allows the crust to seal together.  Slice the other pie crust into 1 inch strips.  I like a lattice crust top – always lots of oohs and aahs from your guests.  It’s simpler than it looks.  First lay the two longest pieces perpendicular on the equators of the pie.  Then lay one strip on each side of the horizontal axis.  Then flip up every other strip on the other axis. Lay down two more strips on each side and flip down the ones that were flipped up.  Continue around the pie until it is covered.  Press the edges together and trim off an excess.  Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with demerara sugar or granulated sugar.  Bake the pie for 50 minutes.  The juices in the middle of the pie will bubble when thickened.  This is the key to doneness.  No one likes a runny pie.  Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Enjoy! Let me know how it works out for you.  I like to make a cherry pie and apple pie along with this for 4th of July – Red, White and Blue pies!

Tastearama’s One Year Anniversary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne year ago, I officially embarked on this Tastearama adventure.  It’s been a fun year to cook and cocktail. I’ve met some great folks and enjoyed many a wonderful time.  So in celebration, I thought I would share a food celebration with you. On birthdays around here, the honoree gets to pick meals for the whole day.  We like to really give it loads of thought.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First, to kick off all birthdays my kids always request a Dutch Baby Pancake.  We first read about it in the New York Times, then would order it at the Original Pancake House when we could stand the extra time to make it.  And my sweet Aunt Carol, gave me a recipe for it when we were together a few years ago.  She loves to show up on vacations armed with recipes to try.  She’s definitely my grandmother’s daughter. It’s a big puffy pancake that you bake in the oven. It’s super simple to make, you just have to leave time to preheat your oven and your pan pretty hot.  It puffs up big and then slowly deflates as it cools and you squeeze lemon juice and sprinkle powdered sugar over it. It’s the perfect start to any day.

Dutch Baby Oven Pancake

3 eggs

1/2 c flour

1/2 c milk

1 T sugar

freshly grated nutmeg (go ahead and splurge and get that cool little nutmeg nugget and grate it on a microplane. The flavor is so much better than stale nutmeg.)

4 T butter

Lemon, for juice

Powdered sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat your oven to 425. Mix eggs, flour, sugar, milk and nutmeg with a whisk.  Place butter in a cast-iron skillet.  Allow butter to melt, then add batter.  Bake for about 20 minutes.  Pancake will puff up and turn golden.  Then lower the heat to 300 for five more minutes.  Sprinkle with lemon juice and powdered sugar. Cut into wedges and serve.  Smile as your breakfast guests cheer for you.

Beet SaladFor lunch, I would celebrate with a salad chock full of all the yummy veggies that are arriving at the markets.  I love beets so here’s a salad we made last Mother’s Day with yellow beets we roasted and blue cheese and toasted walnuts.


Roasted BeetsRoasting beets is so worth the effort.  I’ve usually roasted them for 45 minutes wrapped in foil in the oven, but now I’ve discovered it can be done in about ten minutes (depending on the size) wrapped in parchment in the microwave.  Just scrub it, wrap it, nuke it, peel it, slice it.  To add a little more protein at lunch after a spin workout, I usually have a hard-boiled egg or some smoked salmon.  Yum-a-roo!

Tomahawk SteakAnd for dinner, you can’t go wrong with a Tomahawk Steak. We get one of these beasts from the swell Whole Foods butcher.  They cut one for me when I showed up last time to get one. Don’t be afraid to ask.  They are super-nice. We coat it in a coffee rub, grill it up and slice it.

Teen GrillerIt serves a reasonable amount for four people. My newly minted teenage son has mastered the grill thanks to the therma-pen. No overcooked meats here.  I have to say it made me a little nervous because the Tomahawk is a pricey piece of meat. But he is now a certified grillmaster.  When it’s grilling time, he’s my go-to griller.  And I don’t have to run up and down the back steps.  Love it!


Ooh la la PoutineSince’ it’s a party, why not indulge in the Canadian street food that is showing up here in the US more and more often – Poutine.  It’s amazing and decadent.  Basically it’s perfectly cooked french fries, smothered in some beef gravy and sprinkled with creamy cheese curds.

Benriner Spiral Slicer OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI like to make my fries using a spiral slicer. My long-time bestie, Katie, told me about this awesome Japanese slicer.  I actually have two of them and love each for their special cutting.  We like to spiral slice up a few potatoes, then pan fry in about 1/4 inch of oil slowly turning the fries as they cook pulling them out with a spider strainer to dry on a paper towel. I feel like it makes them a little more healthy plus who has a few quarts of oil to use and toss – that’s for Grease Monkey to do, not me.  I whip up a simple gravy using the Better Than Boullion Beef Base and some water and cornstach.

Better Than BoullionMix your cornstarch in a little bit of water before adding as a thickener.  Otherwise it can get lumpy.  I just shake mine in a little jar and add to the warm broth.

Arsenal Cheese Curds

We used to top our Poutine with cheese curds from Arsenal here in Pittsburgh. But they no longer make them – bummer, because they were phenomenal.  If you can’t find curds from your cheese monger, use a nice soft cheese that softens when it’s gently warmed.

And for a sweet ending to a day of celebration, try this phenomenal decadent Ricotta Cake.  My mom made it when we were visiting a few weeks ago.  I really don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but this cake won raves. We ate it so quickly it was unphotographable.  There is no evidence of this cake, unless you count the sweet memory of a rich creamy vanilla-y cake smothered in ripe fresh strawberries.  My mom got the recipe from a friend in my hometown whose family owns Nap Patti’s Cucina Mia.  It’s a wonderful little restaurant treasure we can walk to. And man, does this cake rock.  Treat yourself…you won’t regret it. It’s worth every bite.

Mary Jo’s Ricotta Cake

1 yellow cake mix

2 # ricotta cheese – i use part-skim

1 c sugar

4 eggs

1 T vanilla

Prepare cake mix according to directions on box and pour into greased 9x13x2 pan and set aside.  (Ingredients needed for cake mix are in addition to those listed above.)

In a separate bowl blend the ricotta, sugar, eggs and vanilla. Pour over prepared cake batter.

Bake at 350 for 60-70 minutes. Let cake cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.  Serve with fresh berries and whipped cream.

And what better celebratory drink than a glass of bubbly. After all, it is a full moon tonight and you know how we roll here.  Cheers friends and thanks for your support!

Two Ingredient Shredded Beef Burritos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband grew up out west in Colorado and is a huge Mexican food fan.  I love it too after living out there for fourteen years. We’re planning an upcoming trip to Arizona and nearly all of our restaurant stops are going to be at Mexican restaurants. Living here in Pittsburgh, good Mexican food is pretty sparse.  There are a few standouts, but nothing like the ubiquitous holes-in-the-wall spots in Denver. 

We usually make Chicken Enchiladas with Green Chile a few times a month, but on occasion when we’re wanting something decadant we go for these beef burritos.  The recipe really couldn’t be simpler and it yields delicous results. It would be great for a party or tailgate.  Simply cube a three pound beef roast (I usually use the rump roast) and add a large can of enchilada sauce.  We don’t have too many choices here but you may in your neck of the woods – the point is it’s the red enchilada sauce.  Seal your pressure cooker. Set it on high – that’s three dots on my pressure cooker.  When it reaches pressure, reduce the temp just high enough to hold that pressure. Cook for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and allow the cooker to release pressure naturally – rather than cooling with tap water.  You can do this the night before or the morning of. Then when you come home, simply warm up the beef, roll the burrito up in a flour tortilla sealing the ends.  Top with cheese and a little of the enchilada sauce and put in the toaster oven or under the broiler.  It’s a great grab and go meal when you’re running around these hectic spring days. It seems like May is busier than December with spring sports, testing, end-of-school projects and performances.  This is also great for your upcoming Cinco de Mayo party – don’t forget to invite us over?! Enjoy!

Get Your Game On – Game Night Snacks and Drinks – As seen on The Today Show

I’ve always enjoyed board games.  It seems the world is divided in to those that do and those that don’t. And I’m here to tell you, be a do.  There is nothing better than sitting down with your kids or adult friends and playing a game.  My parents like games too and are obsessed with Chicken Feet – a dominos game – Ruckus – a wild and crazy card game and “Are You Satisfied?” – a game you play with pennies and a deck of cards.  Every time we visit them, there’s always a round or six at the table.  Laughs, real connections and a little friendly competition are good for a family.

Some of my favorite games I play with my boys are Blokus – a strategic piece placement game – Bananagrams – a scrabble like game housed in a yellow banana – and our new favorite Tenzi – where you get to roll ten dice at the same time.  There’s something thrilling about all those dice going everywhere.  My little guy is almost ten and he would play board games with me every day if I made the time.  In these days, when our kids often seem more plugged in to their electronics, it’s a good Rx to connect over a game.

TodayshowmeredithMy dear pal and super-fun blogger, Meredith Sinclair, keeps me in the know of all the cool new toys.  She was featured in a segment on the Today Show with Hoda and Kathie Lee demonstrating fun new games and tasty snacks and drinks.  She was kind enough to get some recipes from me for this televised soiree.  Check her out over at  She’ll help you add a little more playtime into your everyday life.

In these dreary end-of-winter times, I find myself trying to pull my self out of my Vitamin D starved doldrums.  One of the best ways to change your mood is to invite another family over and connect over a game.  Or while your kids are at the Middle School dance doing the Harlem Shake, why not have some of your parent friends over to play a few games in between pick up and drop off?  Have them bring over a favorite game and set out a few of yours and get your game on.  And a Tastearama gathering wouldn’t be perfect without some signature snacks and drinks.

Here are my recommendations for a tasty game night gathering:


Cheesy Olives

Cheesy Olives are a perennial favorite. Our guests have come to expect them.  The briny green olive wrapped in a cheesy pastry is delicious.  The nice thing is you make them, freeze them and just pop out what you need when guests drop in.  Folks ask me for the recipe so often that I printed them on the back of my business cards.

Bottom of the Cheesy Olive

48 green olives with pimentos, drained and dried very well

2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup flour

1/2 cup salted butter, sliced into six pieces

dash of Worcestershire Sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

Drain and dry the olives well. This step is critical since the dough will not stick to a wet olive.  Cut the butter and cheese together using a pastry cutter.  Add flour, Worcestershire Sauce and salt.  Once combined it will hold together when squeezed.  IMG_2240

Scoop up approximately 1 tablespoon.  Place in palm of hand.  As it warms in your hand it will stick together.  Flatten it into a disk.  Place dried olive in center and wrap the olive in dough.  Pinch off any excess.  Roll into a smooth ball.  Repeat with remaining olives. Freeze on a tray for 30 minutes.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Cheesy olives are done when they start to brown on the bottom and just start to brown on top.  Let them cool a few minutes before eating.  The olive can be hot inside. You can also make these ahead of time and freeze them. Bake straight from the freezer; there’s no need to thaw.

BLT Bites

My son and I decided to whip up a few tasty bites to bring to a friend’s house – but challenged ourselves by using the things we already had on hand – in the pantry, the freezer and the fridge.


We found some Fillo tart shells in the freezer first. (Yes, I know it’s spelled phyllo, but the box said Fillo). Now what to fill them with.  Then he came up with the brilliant idea – and I mean brilliant – to do a BLT filling.
We chopped up some peppered bacon and cooked it.  My home ec teacher in 7th grade taught us to chop the bacon first to cook it. It cooks more evenly and quickly that way.  Thanks, Miss Daskivich.


Then we chopped up some grape tomatoes and baby spinach. We used spinach since it holds up better warm than lettuce does.

So I guess it’s a BST but then you wouldn’t know what it was.  I cooked the tomatoes and spinach in the partially-drained rendered bacon drippings.  Then stirred in a little garlic powder and salt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took it off the heat and added a half of a block of cream cheese.  It slowly melted, we stirred it all together.  Then scooped into the tart shells.  I just warmed it all up once it was assembled in the oven for about ten minutes.

Slam dunk, deliciousness.  Brought to you by one savvy almost-teenaged boy.

IMG_2258BLT Bites

1 package mini Fillo shells (15/package), we use Athena brand

4 strips peppered bacon, chopped

15 grape tomatoes, finely chopped

1 handful baby spinach (approximately one cup), finely chopped

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 block cream cheese (4 oz.)

IMG_2248Cook bacon over low heat until crispy.  Drain fat.  Add tomatoes and spinach and cook on low until spinach wilts – about 3 minutes.  Stir in garlic powder and salt. Remove from heat.  Add cream cheese and stir to combine as it melts.  Spoon into shells.  Warm in the oven at 300 degrees for 8 minutes.

Fill out the rest of your snack table with movie box candy and some gourmet popcorn.  Everything is grab and go friendly and ever so tasty.  No silverware needed and cleanup is a breeze.


And don’t forget the cocktails.  Beer and wine are standard but a special cocktail makes it fun.

Lady Luck

IMG_2228Meredith asked me to come up with a signature cocktail using sparkling wine/champagne/prosecco and give it a fun gamey name – so we came up with Lady Luck.  This drink is heavenly with hints of elderflower from the St. Germain and the zip of grapefruit juice to balance the sweet.  I like to float a blackberry in there. It twists and turns as it floats among the bubbles.



1/2 oz St. Germain

1/2 oz grapefruit juice, chillled

4 oz prosecco (depends on glassware), chilled


Pour St. Germain and grapefruit juice into tall stemless flute or champagne flute.  Add one blackberry into each glass.  Top with chilled prosecco.  For an easy party, pour the St. Germain and grapefruit juice and add in one blackberry.  Keep your sparkly cold, then all your guests need to do is fill with prosecco and they are off to the races.

Beer Margaritas

I love to mix up a pitcher – or cute swing bottle – full of my beer margaritas.  Then let your guests help themselves. Just lay out salt and ices and glasses next to the pitcher and you’re good to go.  These tasty three ingredient margaritas are always a winner.

About fifteen years ago, before any of us had kids, Mr. Big and I went on a camping trip just outside Minturn, Colorado.  The 10th Mountain Division had huts of varying degrees of civilization that you could rent.  We rented a big one – with a bunkhouse, loft, kitchen and a great deck.  There must have been at least 20 people in and out of the cabin that weekend – and a few illegal dogs.  It was a no-dog hut, but somehow the dogs snuck in.  Colorado folks LOVE their dogs.  My brother and his wife along with her twin sister and her boyfriend were along too.  We were the only city dwellers in the bunch. When the whole lot of them decided to ride their bikes directly uphill on Sunday morning, Mr. Big and I piled in the Jeep, wrangled down the mountain into town and washed our hands and face in warm running soapy water and read the newspaper while sipping a delicious latte.  That was our way of conquering nature, not riding a bike straight uphill.

It was an odd lot of folks, but a lovely setting. The best part of the weekend was that I scored my all-time, easiest and tastiest margarita recipe. Once you have the base recipe, you can always riff on it with different fruit purees or rimming ingredients – salt, sugar, spicy salt, the list goes on.  The recipe is three ingredients, equal parts.  You can make the first batch clear headed, but it’s easy to do after you’ve finished the first pitcher.

Beer Margaritas

1 can beer, we use Yuengling

12oz.  Tequila, we prefer Herradura Silver, I measure it out in the limeade can to rinse out

1 can frozen limeade, we use Minute Maid

Simply mix the ingredients in a pitcher.  Pour over salt rimmed (if you are so inclined) glasses of ice.  Don’t mix the limeade with any water.  Use it full strength.  The beer adds a nice sparkle to the drink.  Mix ‘em up tonight and make your own fiesta.  And call me to come over, I’m thirsty.

Why not call up some friends and get your game on this weekend? Cheers!

Horseradish Hummus

Hummus in the food processorHummus is great, guilt-free, go-to dip.  I love to have it on hand so we can dip some crisp veggies instead of reaching for crunchy junk food.  When we have hummus, our vegetable intake goes way up.

Kelchner's Horseradish

While perusing the pre-made hummus in the grocery store, there are loads of varieties these days with all kinds of add ons.  I’m not crazy about the consistency of most of these pre-made versions – they seem over-whipped.  It’s a whiz to make – literally.  Keep the ingredients on hand and you are ready to go whenever guests drop in.  You can swirl in all kinds of add ons – pesto, chopped sundried tomatoes, olive bruschetta topping, let your imagination take over. Tahini is ground sesame paste and found usually in the Mediterranean section of your grocery.

Horseradish Hummus

1 14 oz can of Garbanzo Beans, we prefer Bush’s

2 tablespoons Tahini

juice of half a lemon

3 T olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon horseradish, we prefer Kelchner’s

1 garlic clove

water, to desired consistency

Add all ingredients except water into the bowl of your food processor and puree.  Add water to thin to desired consistency. Serve in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil.  Use as a dip for veggies or pita chips.  It’s also great as a sandwich spread.


Dinosaur Kale with Sliced Garlic

Dinosaur Kale with Sliced GarlicWe’ve all read about what a nutrient packed powerhouse kale is.  We’ve worked it into a regular repertoire of hot vegetables – along with asparagus, broccoli and green beans.  And my kids gobble it up. I prefer to use it in soups over spinach or escarole since it holds up better.  At first my local grocery store only carried the curly lighter green version, but now has a few kinds.  Whole Foods carries the delicious Tuscan Kale or Dinosaur Kale – super dark green and flatter than the version that’s been used as a poor garnish in restaurants for years.

Our simple prep utilizes the volume of a wok since the greens are quite voluminous when you first cook them.  One bunch serves my family of four.

Dinosaur Kale with Sliced Garlic

1 bunch of kale, washed, stem removed and chopped rough

1 c water

1 t salt

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 T olive oil

Add the water and salt to the wok over medium high heat.  When boiling, add the kale.  Cook for 1 minute to wilt the kale.  Then drain off the water.  Make a well in the bottom of the wok.  Add olive oil. Heat over medium heat.  Add garlic slices.  Cook for 15 seconds then stir down the kale into the wok.  Cook for 2 minutes.  Enjoy and feel good about what you’re eating.

Video – Muller Yogurt

IMG_2190 Yogurt SamplesAfter a whole family battle with food poisoning or Norovirus, we rebooted our system with “good for your gut” yogurt.  Quaker recently launched a new yogurt here in the Pittsburgh area – Muller Greek Corner.  The yogurts are tasty, have double the protein of standard yogurt and aren’t overly sweet.  My favorite is the blackberry raspberry Greek Corner.  Check out our video review and leave a comment below on what you like to eat for breakfast, then we’ll enter you in a drawing to win ten free yogurt coupons from Muller.

The contest ends Friday March 1st at noon.  I’ll post the winner that afternoon.  I wasn’t compensated for this review and only received free samples from Quaker. The opinions are my own.

THE CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. Congratulations to our winner Carla!  Enjoy your yogurt.  Muller will send the coupons directly to you.  TGIF!


BLT Bites are the BST

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other night we were invited over to a friend’s house for an appetizer party.  She was cleaning out her freezer of all the nibblers she had – chicken fingers, mini-tacos, potstickers, little pizzas, you name it – she had it.  The kids thought it was about the coolest thing they have ever been to.  Q and I decided to whip up a few tasty bites to bring along – but challenged ourselves by using the things we already had on hand – in the pantry, the freezer and the fridge.

We found some Fillo tart shells in the freezer first. (Yes, I know it’s spelled phyllo, but the box said Fillo). Now what to fill them with.  Then he came up with the brilliant idea – and I mean brilliant – to do a BLT filling. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe chopped up some peppered bacon and cooked it.  My home ec teacher in 7th grade taught us to chop the bacon first to cook it. It cooks more evenly and quickly that way.  Thanks, Miss Daskivich. Then we chopped up some grape tomatoes and baby spinach. We used spinach since it holds up better warm than lettuce does. So I guess it’s a BST but then you wouldn’t know what it was.  I cooked the tomatoes and spinach in the rendered bacon drippings.  Then stirred in a little garlic powder.  No need for salt since the bacon has plenty and it’s coated with pepper too.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took it off the heat and added a half of a block of cream cheese.  It slowly melted, we stirred it all together.  Then scooped into the tart shells.  I just warmed it all up once it was assembled in the oven for about ten minutes.

Slam dunk, deliciousness.  Whip up a batch for your next gathering – great for Super Bowl, great for cocktail parties.

BLT Bites

1 package Fillo shells (15/package)

4 strips peppered bacon, chopped

15 grape tomatoes, chopped finely

1 handful baby spinach, chopped finely

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/2 block cream cheese (4 oz.)

Cook bacon until crispy.  Add tomatoes and spinach and cook on low until spinach wilts.  Add garlic powder.  Remove from heat. Add cream cheese and stir to combine as it melts.  Spoon into shells. Warm in the oven (at 300 degrees) or in a toaster oven for 8-10 minutes.  Enjoy!

Great Kitchen and Bar Gifts

A few months back, I wrote about some kitchen items you may not already have that you might want to pick up.  Read about those here.  This time around I have some of my all-time favorite items I use in the kitchen and bar. If you’re looking to expand your kitchen supplies or have a chef in training on your gift list, here are some of my favorites:


Ad Hoc at HomeFavorite Kitchen Cookbook - One of my favorite cookbooks I have had a lot of fun with this year is Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller.  As the acclaimed chef of California wine country’s The French Laundry, Keller has the utmost respect for quality ingredients and careful preparation. His simple equation in the kitchen is “great product + great execution = great cooking.”  Ad Hoc at Home is his exploration into cooking at home, family-style recipes. The thing I have learned from this cookbook is to slow down.  Simple things like using a large spoon to gently turn foods rather than tongs, encourages this.  Also, his garlic confit makes one of the best additions to your kitchen.  We’ve made his million stepped brined, fried chicken and it was exceptional.  Keller’s view on how to become a better cook and how to organize a kitchen is enlightening. I’m using it to teach my sons their way around the kitchen. It’s a huge book, but it’s worth it’s weight.

Craft of the CocktailFavorite Cocktail Recipes Book – I’ve said it before here on Tastearama, I love Dale DeGroff’s cocktail tome “The Craft of the Cocktail”. It’s an inclusive and vast collection of cocktail recipes full of fun historical snippets.  It also has a great overview of how to stock a bar.  Cocktail experts and novices alike all can learn something from one of America’s favorite bartenders.




Fun Tools

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImmersion Blender - Mr. Big’s favorite soup is Tortilla soup.  He doesn’t believe that soup is really a food, so when I find one he likes, we run with it.  I, on the other hand, could have soup and salad for lunch every day and be the happiest girl.  The first time we made tortilla soup we used the blender to puree some of the soup.  That’s just a hot exploding accident waiting to happen.  The lid flew off from the pressure inside the blender and searing spiced tomato puree went everywhere.  Shortly thereafter, we discovered the immersion blender. It’s a little blender on a stick that you put directly in the pot.  It won’t scratch your pans because it has a nice little rim that extends past the spinning blades. It’s also great for frothing and whipping up small things in a glass.  And there’s no exploding.  They run about $40 and I love mine from Cuisinart.

Garlic PasterGarlic Grinder – My mom picked up this little stoneware plate covered in spiky nubs.  You hold the garlic clove and just press it gently while swirling on the plate.  It purees the garlic perfectly.  I’ve seen the plates at arts festivals and craft shows. Do yourself a favor and pick one up next time you see one.


SipperSipping Spoon for the bar - This neat bar tool is my new favorite.  I picked it up this fall at Crate & Barrel and use it regularly.  It’s a long handled stainless spoon, like an iced tea spoon. The cool thing is that the handle is a straw so you can test out the cocktail you’re stirring.  Ingenious idea.


Itty bitty scrapersItty Bitty Rubber Scrapers – I have two adorable rubber scrapers I received in my stocking a few years ago.  They are perfect for scraping out a jar or cleaning out a sticky bowl of ingredients.  Sur la Table has them as well as Williams-Sonoma.  Great stocking stuffer.



Small appliances that make life easier

Kitchenaid Stand Mixer – My beloved Kitchenaid Stand Mixer died the day before Thanksgiving. RIP Mixer. It served me well for over ten years.  We could not figure out why it had no power, so we donated it to the folks at Waste Management. I’ve asked Santa for a new one.  I’ll still stick with the one that lifts up instead of the one that has the arms that hold on to the bowl.  The armed ones are so tall they don’t fit underneath my kitchen cabinets.  The selection of colors available these days make it fun to choose. Last time I played it safe with a white one, this time I’m hoping for a spicy cinnamon colored version. I use the mixer a few times a week.  The power behind it is so nice when you are baking a stiff dough like my chocolate chip cookies.  This year’s holiday baking will be very dainty cookies since I’ll have to use my hand mixer.

Cuisinart Food ProcessorCuisinart Food Processor
- I adore my 11 cup Cuisinart food processor. I definitely use it every few days.  When I’m prepping for a party, it’s a real time saver.  My father-in-law bought it for me almost ten years ago and it’s still going strong.  The new version has a blade that locks in so when you pour out your ingredients the blade doesn’t splash down into your bowl.  Somebody’s thinking over there at Cuisinart.  I use it for pizza dough weekly and love the dough feature.



Panasonic InfraredPanasonic Infrared Toaster Oven - Mr. Big loves electronics and technology.  He will obsess over the details of new whizbang items.  He read about the Panasonic infrared toaster oven a few months ago. We ordered it and it was continually on backorder for some reason.  Restaurants use this model. One great thing about it is the small footprint and cool stainless design. The infrared makes it a fabulous crisper/toaster/reheater. Goodbye rubbery reheated microwave foods.  So long big old single task toaster.  Life is good.

Favorite Food Gifts

Penzeys Drawer

Penzey’s Spices – If you’re lucky enough to live close to a Penzey’s Spices store like I am, this is a great place to find hostess gifts and stocking stuffers for foodies.  Their products also are available online or through their well written catalog.  Some of our favorites are the Florida Pepper, Chipotle Pepper, Italian Dressing Seasoning Mix and Hot Chocolate Mix.  Spice up your holidays.

Preserved LemonsPreserved Lemons – Thanks to Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook, we made preserved lemons as food gifts this year.  My parents brought home a treasure trove of Meyer lemons from their home in Florida.  I had always heard of Moroccan preserved lemons and seen them at gourmet food stores.  I tried them for the first time this summer and I’m in love. They add such depth and flavor to so many dishes.  Plus they are pretty little sunshines in your refrigerator.  They take about a month to preserve, but keep for a year in the fridge.


Braswell's SelectGourmet Jellies – There was a lovely, elegant older woman who worked for my dad when I was growing up. She was the ballet instructor and was so exquisite. I remember her always stopping by the house with a Christmas gift from Harry & David – jellies of all flavors. These days, Braswells are my favorite.  They are English and come in reusable glassware.  Think those cool Flintstone glasses Welch’s used to do in the 70’s that you drank juice from.  These are lovely glasses that I use in my guest bathrooms.  And the jellies are fabulous.  I just picked up Raspberry Peach Champagne Preserves.  I’ve picked up the Braswell’s at TJ Maxx and Marshalls.  The other jellies I love are from Bonne Maman – the French ones in the red checked jar available at your local grocery.  They make great stocking stuffers or bundle up a few and give them as a hostess gift.

Cocktail Party Plan

Our annual Holiday Cocktail Party is one of my favorite nights of the year.  I love all the prep, the glitter, getting dressed up, and maybe grabbing the microphone for a carol or two.  We started the tradition four years ago and its a great way to kick off the holiday season.  We’ve always been fans of the cocktail culture.  Some of our friends embrace it, others stick to champagne or beer, but everyone seems to have a good time. 

It helps that we have a great bar thanks to my dad. He has a hobby of repurposing things into bars – a 1950′s TV cabinet, multiple upright pianos, and my family heirloom – the old police station cabinet with carved posts, bullet proof glass and a pretty brass gate door.  He’s going to start selling his masterpieces on etsy.  He has a few piano bars in Florida and Pennsylvania.  His work is exceptional. 

The other thing that lubes up our party is a microphone and our Yamaha player piano – which plays favorite songs all by itself. It’s always a hoot as people grab the microphone and sing along. This year we’re rolling up the living room carpet and making way for a little dancing should the guests need to shake it. 


The cocktail party features our favorite party equation – drinks, appetizers and bite sized desserts.  Mr. Big has always wanted to open a Before & After restaurant that serves just appetizers and desserts.  Such a great fun idea.  I’ll continue to dream about that.  Here’s what we’re serving this year.

Favorite Pre-Mixed Cocktails

I like to mix drinks ahead of the party so guests can serve themselves.  I want them to feel comfortable in my home so this helps the process.  Plus, my obsession with the glass swing bottles, makes this easy.  This year I’m mixing up a few favorites and keeping them on ice then laying them out next to their respective glassware and garnishes.

Holy Berries – Last year, I saw this recipe on Twitter from the very funny, NuckingFutsMama – Jennifer Marshall. She’s keeps it real on her blog.  Give this drink a try but beware it packs a punch. No, that’s not a typo, the name is Holy Berries not Holly Berries because everything is going along fine and then boom it hits you.

Simply mix up  3 cups Bacardi Limon, 3 cups cranberry juice, 3 cups sweet and sour mix, and 1 cup chopped mint.  Then as folks need them, shake over ice in a shaker and strain into a martini glass.  You can garnish with a few whole cranberries or a sprig of mint.  But after the first one, that kind of fanciness gets discarded. 

Bloody Mary - I featured my Bloody Mary on Tastearama earlier.  Here’s a link to a favorite drink.  I like a savory drink. Sometimes things are a little too sweet for me.






Margarita - Our beer margaritas have been a favorite for over fifteen years.  Here’s the recipe for this south of the border treat.

Cosmopolitans – There is nothing more festive than a pink drink for the holidays.  I have a few pals that embrace the cranberry goodness of the Cosmo.  I like to whip upa batch in my pretty glass pitcher. Then I leave my ice bucket and pink shaker next to it so they can get them when needed. I use Dale DeGroff’s Cosmo recipe from his bible The Craft of the Cocktail:

1 1/2 oz citron vodka, 1/2 oz Cointreau, 1/4 oz lime juice, 1 oz cranberry juice

Shake all ingredients with ice.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Whiskey Slush – I featured my Dad’s Whiskey Slush here on Tastearama this summer.  Here’s the scoop on a holiday favorite here – but it would make a swell summer slush too.

Champagne/Sparkling Wine - Living here in the Peoples Republic of Pennsylvania, our liquor and wine stores are run by the state.  It’s an antiquated system, and I won’t get on my soapbox about how inappropriate it is for a government to be in business like this. One of the only good things it offers customers is great deals on wines at times. Apparently, the state of Pennsylvania is the largest single purchaser of wine.  They are featuring the Anna de Codorniu Cava for $8.99 usually $15.99 with an 88 rating from Wine Spectator.  It’s festive and fizzy and ever-so-tasty. I have a few friends who just huddle around the champagne bottles and never move for the whole night. 


Salami Provolone Stuffed Peppers – I saw this recipe in a little appetizer insert in the Food Network magazine.  Simple take a slice of salami and wrap it around a square of smoked provolone. Then insert into a pickled cherry pepper – the short squatty, not hot little peppers. I can get them in my grocery store at the Olive Bar – which is the best invention of the 21st century, in my humble opinion.  We tried these out when family was in town over Thanksgiving and they were gobbled up.  The pretty colors of the peppers make them festively appropriate.

Cheesy Olives – Hands down, this is my most-requested recipe.  I featured it on my birthday this year here at Tastearama.  Just make a big batch and keep them in the freezer for your holiday entertaining season. God bless my dear mother who made me a double batch at Thanksgiving. They are awaiting the oven as they sit in my freezer.


Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms – We made these savory sausage stuffed mushrooms for Thanksgiving this year. I love them and I love that my son loves to make them.  He’s becoming quite the sous chef these days.  The recipe hails from the incredible Ina Garten – she can do no wrong when it comes to a party. Here’s the recipe I featured on Tastearama.

Smoked Trout Platter – Real Simple magazine has a great way of whittling down all the excess and making simplicity so elegant.  They have some party platters featured in this month’s magazine.  We’re going to lay out the Smoked Trout Platter with rye bread, pickled red onions, cream cheese, dill, cucumber, lemon and capers.  Their layout is stunning.

Ham Platter – Real Simple also featured a ham platter.  I like to have a ham for this party so folks have some sustenance.  We always get the spiral sliced ham, warm with a sweet brown sugary glaze and then lay it out for noshers.  This year we’re laying it out with those cute King’s Hawaiian buns, hot pepper jelly, Kozlik’s mustard, cajun mayo, pickled veggies and sliced sweet pickles.  I like to make my grandmother’s tomato rice soup with ham in it the next day.  Something comforting about this childhood favorite.


Tiramisu Brownies – A few weeks ago I met a local pastry chef.  She shared a few recipes at a coffee and dessert pairing, and the Tiramisu Brownies stuck in my mind as perfect for the cocktail party.  I’m cutting them into bite size portions and putting them in vintage sherry glasses.  They are rich and chocolatey.  And like I mentioned before, they remind me of my wedding cake which was tiramisu flavored.  Here’s the link to the recipe from my write up.

Something else sweet – I’m vascilating between a few other sweets.  We’ll have to see what strikes my fancy when I start cooking. Maybe a cookie plate of some favorites.

 So carve out a little time to gather with your friends this holiday season.  Shake up a drink and toast to good times.  All the best to you and yours!