Have Bar, Will Travel


Does my life look dreamy to you?

Because it is.

Some days, I can't wrap my brain around it. Dinner with Tony Bourdain, lunch with Mark Bittman, brunch with Joel Salatin. It boggles my mind.

And last week, I managed to hit a new high.

I had a meeting with an entrepreneur, and scheduled a rendezvous at my local coffee shop. Picture a Jerry Garcia-themed place with heavy wood tables. The bread is organic and made in-house. A reader board outside begs, "Save the Butterflies!" You get the idea....

I breezed through the door, and stopped dead in my tracks. A shaft of light illuminated a stylish travel bag perched on a table. I glanced toward the owner. He looked straight out of a magazine. Tall, blonde, and a presence that was unmistakable. I pictured him stepping off a private jet, flying direct from Tokyo or Milan.

"Hi! Are you Craig?"

Yep. That's him. My one o'clock.
--

Minutes into our conversation, I'm relieved to discover, Craig Krueger's more substance than style. He may be easy on the eyes, but Craig leads with impressive drive and business acumen.

I'm intrigued. How did he go from a small town, population 1,500, to inventor and entrepreneur, with a product sold in over 20 countries? It's often said that the puzzle pieces of life fit together best, when looking in the rear view mirror.

A small town Midwestern boy, Craig was no stranger to hard work. "I started declaring income when I was fifteen." He and his twin brother harvested ginseng fields in Wisconsin from sun up until three. After work, they went to their grandparent's house and bailed hay until dark. Farm work waits for no one.

College was looming, and to pay for it, they enlisted in the Army reserves. Still in high school, summer their junior year...was spent at boot camp. The brothers returned home for senior year, and shortly after graduation, Army training beckoned. A mind for detail became evident. In college, Craig studied anesthesiology, and trained as a combat medic in the reserves.

Plot twist.

On a whim, he submitted photos to a model search website. A scout signed him on the spot. First gig? Fly to LA for an Ambercrombie & Fitch campaign.

Between modeling jobs, he worked as a bartender, specializing in off-site events. Eventually he owned his own business, hiring out bartenders for private events and corporate gigs. Sold that. Pursued something else. It wasn't the right fit and a moment of crisis hit. What's next? "I was at the end of my rope."

After some soul searching, he remembered those years, traveling to various events. Bartenders would show up with their kit in a suit case, a shopping bag, or a box. "It was nuts!"

The wheels were in motion. "What if...I designed a bag to make it easier? A mobile bar...in a bag?"

Diving into an industry you know nothing about? How do you go from idea to innovation? That can be intimidating. Fortunately, he was in the right place. "I found resources that were plugged into the old sewing community in Seattle." JanSport, Filson, and Eddie Bauer all had their start in Seattle.

An avid learner, Craig explored all aspects of the business--from the prototype to patterning, and making markers. (Markers are made so you know what your yields are when the design is laid out on fabric. Maximize the layout for minimum loss--which becomes key, especially with an expensive fabric. Leave as little as possible on the cutting room floor.)

Finding players with a legacy was key. He tapped into a bag consultant with 20 years experience, a pattern maker that's been in business for 30 years, and a manufacturer who specializes in American-made products. "You know the Crawfish House in White Center? My stitcher is near there."

At the cafe, we opened the bag, and people immediately stopped to ask about it.

"I created the bag I wanted to carry."

Craig drew inspiration from medical bags used in combat, and he adapted it for bartenders. Thoughtful features include a neon orange interior that's visible in low light conditions. The steel grey exterior is made with a high-grade waterproof material, and it's lined with a durable cloth used for sailing. The sexy design screams Porsche and Rodeo Drive-style, with rugged function. Multiple strap options are built in (messenger, backpack and handle), and made for an urban environment. "Bartenders ride the train, bike, or motorcycle to work. They need flexible options."

While the bag is designed with bartenders and brand ambassadors in mind, immediately I thought of camping, boating, or weekend getaways with friends. It may be designed for pros, but I'd get some serious use out of it.

BYOB--Bring Your Own Bar?

I'm on it!



Looks like a typical carry on bag, yes? The magic is inside....


Essentials.


What's your preference? Stirred or shaken? Notice how the bag completely opens from the top and both sides? The open panel tucks into a pocket, allowing easy access to the contents inside.


A side panel opens to hold your bar kit and stirrer. A deep pocket runs the length of the bag and easily fits a laptop.

Pocket detail. Customize your kit anyway you want, but Craig's looked like this. L-R, Top to Bottom: Muddler, bottle key, peeler, cocktail strainer, jigger, knife, ice scoop, Microplane, and julep strainer.


Long on style and function, his bags are all handcrafted and made in the USA.

****
UPDATE 2/24: It's HERE! The Kickstarter is live. Get your very own bar in a bag. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mavenhal/bar-back-urban-multi-carry-travel-backpack-to-tote

Update: You want one. I know you do. Sorry. This is just a preview. It's not available for sale yet. Craig's Kickstarter launches 2/15. I'll get you a link when it's live.

In the meantime, check out the 1.0 version of the bag. http://mavenhal.com/

Anar: The Taste of Memory

                                                                                                           photo source

My first thought of Wassef Haroun? I want to be in his orbit. Kind and rooted in amiable, effortless hospitality. He is a high tech executive turned restaurateur, and those skills honed in tech have served him well. Systematic testing, calling in the best and the brightest to launch your project, and applying that to food? The results are transformative.

Syrian born, with a large portion of time spent in Lebanon, Haroun was raised on vivid flavors of the spice route. A cultural mingling that's been going on for centuries, the recipes can vary from city to city, house to house. But the arsenal of flavors--heat relieving souring agents, earthy caramelized vegetables, pops of freshness punctuated by raw or pickled vegetables. It's a beguiling, crave-worth mix, not easily satisfied in the Pacific Northwest.

Food like that is deeply personal and imbued with a sense of place. How do you recreate that in a new culture? With Haroun's first restaurant venture, the highly lauded Mamnoon, he tapped the sources he knows best, his mother and mother in law. The dream team was rounded out with a consultant from Beirut, cookbook author, Barbara Massaad. Using an approach from his high tech days, each dish underwent meticulous testing until finally, they narrowed down the best version. Before the restaurant launched, they created a binder full of curated recipes. And it worked, sort of.

The thing is, how do you develop a staff who understands food from a deeply rooted culture, one that is not their own? Sure, they can follow the recipe, but cooking, is also an art. So the tactic changed. Every new employee is encouraged to taste. The goal? Develop a food memory.

And taste.

Taste everything.

Once cooks understand the flavors they're aiming for, Haroun discovered, it's best to get out of the way. The creative process unfolds, and constraints are lifted. "They'll figure out how to get there."

And it is exactly those taste memories, formed years ago in Syria and Lebanon, that Haroun is chasing. His latest venture, anar, at the base of a new Amazon high rise, heralds another chapter. The all vegetarian menu is crafted by Shannon Smith, a former baker, who was so determined to work with Haroun, she originally took a job as a busboy. Baker. Busboy. Executive Chef. The trajectory may take a meandering curve, but Haroun's keen eye for attracting talent was not overlooked. Before long, she was embarking on a deeply nuanced journey of sumac, tahini, and pomegranate molasses.

At the root of it all, taste.

Taste everything.

With the launch of anar, there is no dumbing down the menu for a Western audience. A mezze plate of carrot bi tahini and muhammara, also includes a Persian hummus laden with herbs including anisey tarragon. And a sour juice with a decided funk is an acquired taste, blending tomato, bell pepper, cantaloupe, ginger, tarragon, and aleppo pepper.

My perfect meal at anar? Grab some friends and try fatteh (a yogurt based dish topped with a 'salad' of fresh & roasted vegetables--photo below), balila (a warm chickpea soup with cumin and lemon that had me swooning in my seat. Sadly, no photo.), mujadara (a lentil & rice based dish that is the backbone of Middle Eastern comfort food--photo below), a salad, and sesame honey bars.

Exciting and intriguing, it's a taste adventure. No passport required.

In an attempt to decode the depth of flavors at anar, I went home and laid out all my Middle Eastern cookbooks. I launched into a DYI bootcamp, sussing out techniques, ingredients, and culture by culture comparisons. In the warm, yogurt-based fatteh, for example, was it enriched with an egg? Or a roux? No. Haroun tells me, it's completely vegetarian and gluten-free.

I may never crack the code behind anar's most exquisite dishes, but my appreciation runs deep. More than a week later, the flavors haunt me still. I sincerely hope every meal lingers long in my mind, but they rarely do. At anar, I nearly wept, knowing I'll never be able to recreate that food. And really, isn't that the point? I'd gladly give them the reins.

Taste.

Taste everything.



Will Moseley preparing a sample of house-blended juices. Take your juice straight up, or enrich it with yogurt or cashew milk.


For the preview, we sampled nearly everything. Turning the spotlight on juices, we have:

(Clockwise, starting at the top)
Refresh: cocnut water, carrot, ginger, orange, and orange blossom
"Red" is at 3 pm (and begging for a rename): roma tomato, red bell pepper, cantaloupe, ginger, tarragon, and aleppo
Green: lacinato kale, romaine, celery, fuji apple, lemon and parsley
Yellow Number 5: pineapple, yellow sweet pepper, lemon, and rosewater
In the center, is the anar signature drink: red beets, orange, and pomegranate


Quinoa and arugula salad with shamandar (the magenta-colored dip, made with beets), avocado, and an apple cider vinaigrette. The house made cracker is gluten-free and topped with a thyme-based Middle Eastern spice blend called za'atar.


The anar Mezze: (clockwise) Fresh vegetables, gluten-free housemade cracker topped with za'atar, a roasted pepper dip called muhammara, carrot bi tahini, and Persian green hummus made with blanched tarragon, cilantro, and parsley. PRO TIP: Chef Shannon Smith blanches the herbs to lock in the herbs vibrant colors.


Be still my heart! This dish will find me illegally parking, and is destination-worthy. Behold:  Fatteh. A garlic-infused yogurt base served warm (yes, warm!) topped with a 'salad' of caramelized cauliflower, creamy garbanzo beans, and finely sliced fresh cucumber.


Kale Avocado Salad with roasted sweet potato, sumac, and radish, served on top of a raw sunflower seed puree and dressed with a nutritional yeast vinaigrette (think: umami)


Mujadara is comfort food, and anar's version is the best I've had. Green lentils and brown rice, garnished with pickled turnips (pickled in beet juice for color), a dollop of Ellenos yogurt, cilantro, aleppo pepper, and spiced pepitas.


A breakfast options include sublimely rich Ellenos yogurt, with a variety of topping options. This is pistachio and date granola with fresh fruit.


Lebanese Sesame Seed Bars. I've had versions of this dish before, but in the hands of a well crafted chef determined to test until it's absolutely right? Anar's version is a game changer. Light and almost fluffy, sesame and honey are blended together for a snack that, honestly, if they could support the volume, I'd buy them by the box.


Anar's key players: Wassef Haroun (owner), Shannon Smith (Executive Chef), Racha Haroun (owner), and Will Moseley (Project Manager/Right Hand Man)

2040 6th Avenue*
Seattle, WA 98122


* In Amazon's new Doppler campus, next to the Denny Triangle

When the Stars Align - Inside the StarChefs Gala

In December, New York based StarChefs shined the spotlight on Seattle's Rising Stars. But first, you need to know this: selection for the awards is a grueling process. Over the course of three trips (averaging 7-8 days each), StarChefs teams photographed and interviewed over 100 chefs and food artisans.  (Full list of the Seattle Rising Stars is here.) 

Earlier this summer, I had a rare opportunity to sit in on one of those interviews. Chefs are asked to prepare four dishes -- three that are currently on the menu and one chef's choice. That single chef's choice dish says a lot. For the interview I attended, chef Katie Gallego prepared a consume with a whimsical house-extruded alphabet pasta, strewn with fresh flowers. Why this dish? For her, soup holds a special reverence. It's the mark of simple ingredients, executed well. Honing her technique, perfecting consume took several months. The pasta extruder was new to the restaurant, and getting the dough just right took some trial and error. Using the alphabet die for her pasta shape reflects both nostalgia and her tongue-in-cheek humor, while delicate blossoms added a feminine touch. (Lady chef in the house!) Looking into the depths of her soup, I was reminded...if you ask, there's a story behind everything. 

On to the event! At the awards gala, I had an all access pass. Wine in one hand, camera in the other, let's go find some trouble....


Heading into the awards ceremony are Canon's Director of Hospitality Charles Veitch III, Stoneburner and Bastille's sommelier James Lechner, and Rocky Yeh, spirits portfolio ambassador for Vinim Wine and Importing (aka Camp Runamok's Benevolent Dictator.) 


Getting ready to take the stage are Rising Stars (L-R) Travis Kukull of Mollusk, Brandon Pettit of Delancey, and Edouardo Jordan of Salare.

Well, hello there! More Rising Stars. (L-R) Brendan McGill of Hitchcock, Heong Soon Park of Tray Kitchen, and Joe Ritchie from Goldfinch Tavern at the Four Seasons Hotel.


Winners row. All the StarChefs award recipients were seated in the back row of the theater. A proverbial who's who in Seattle food and drink.

A packed theater for the awards ceremony.

Goldfinch Tavern chef, Joe Ritchie with his award. "Hi Mom, I won!" 


While Joe was on stage getting another award for best plating (and a $5,000 check), I got a closer look at his RisingStars award. Nice, eh?


Coming off the stage, I caught up with the boys of McCrackenTough restaurant group. (L-R) Are Rising Stars Jeff Vance, executive chef of SPUR Gastropub and Cameron Hanin executive chef of Tavern Law. Lending a hand for the night is Chris Morgan.

***

After the awards, the recipients raced back to the main gala, gearing up the crush of people. Here Revel chef-owner Seif Chirchi (left) puts the finishing touches on his dish of seared wagyu, cucumber laarb, sorrel, and shrimp. 


StarChefs honed in on Seattle's small distillery movement. Nabbing an artisan Rising Star award is Westland Distillery, pouring American Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. That's Westland's Sales Manager Matt Freerks on the left and Whiskey Ambassador Drew Haugstad on the right.

Have waffle iron, will travel.

Mollusk chef Travis Kukull created a an okonomiyaki for his restaurant's menu. He was looking for street-style bar food that was international, but adaptable to a Northwest spin. Breaking with tradition, he wanted to use Northwest ingredients inside and on top. Admittedly, he has a "very active mind" and says he's cooked over 500 versions, sometimes changing it every day. For the event, his okonomiyaki featured pickled local giant octopus (whole octopus ranging 20-30 pounds), kewpie mayonnaise, and bonito flakes.

"Hey Chef! Can I get a photo?" "Sure! Can my wife be in it?" Mollusk chef Travis Kukull and his wife, Rachel.

I've been following this woman on Twitter for years. A highlight of the night was meeting Antoinette Bruno (@Antoinette_b), StarChef's CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Oh, the stories this woman could tell! Hero worship got the best of me and all I managed to eek out was something like, "I'm a huge fan of your work." 


Plating in action, thanks to students from Seattle Central Culinary Academy. 


This was a tower of goodness, but I tilted the top back so you could see the layers. Canlis is a legendary fine dining restaurant, often on the James Beard short list for best restaurant in America. Here, their pastry chef has prepared "Banana Brains" with chocolate, banana, miso, and peanuts.

Rising Star pastry chef, Baruch Ellsworth, from Canlis. 


Look at this beautiful dessert! My camera doesn't do it justice. Pastry chef Junko Mine is at Cafe Juanita, a highly regarded upscale Italian restaurant. The official description is woefully short: Chocolate Bread, Ricotta, Fruit, and Nuts. I tracked back with the owner, Holly Smith, for more information. Bread, really? "Her bread is amazing and it's great as a loaf...for this dish, turning it into a crostini gave great texture and allowed us to use the bread in a dessert in an unexpected way. Gianduja, house made is on top, ricotta, house made and flavored with orange zest and a great local honey below." How do they achieve those otherworldly shapes? Thin slices of bread are draped over foil cylinders and baked until crisp.

The chefs of Cafe Juanita. Meet James Beard Award Winner and chef-owner Holly Smith with Rising Star pastry chef, Junko Mine.


If anyone's counting, the boys from the McCrackenTough restaurant group picked up four Rising Star awards. SPUR's bartender, Seth Sempere, prepared a beguiling cocktail called the Mambo Sun.

What's in Sempere's Mambo Sun? Here you go....


Without a witness, I could have done some serious damage here. Behold...Clare Gordon and General Porpoise's warm apple galettes topped with melting camembert. The crust was absolute perfection. Dear Clare, what's the secret behind your crust? She tells me it's all butter "and I use a robot coupe. It's fast, which helps keep the ingredients super cold." 


Crew for the gala: Joshua Hart of Monsoon, Rising Star Clair Gordon of General Porpoise, and her pastry cook, David Casler.

Each dish of the night was paired with a beverage, and several people pointed me here. "Have you tried The Pundit?" A notable stop, for sure. This is the 2013 Syrah from Tenet Wines, based in the Columbia Valley, WA.

This dish stopped me in my tracks. Cameron Hanin of Tavern Law presented foie gras paired with freshly shaved mushrooms and Saskatoon berries. Fortunately, the evening was winding down and we had time to talk. The pairing caught me off guard, so I asked him about the thought process behind his dish. In my notebook, he drew a diagram. First, he starts by asking himself, "What's special?" Saskatoon berries have a very short season (three weeks) and he had a stash of them frozen. Next, what's the flavor profile? Raisins and vanilla. What goes with that? Foie. How do I want to serve that? In a mousse? Terrine? Torchon? The torchon won. Next, what goes with offal and game meats? Juniper, red wine, and mushroom. All flavors he worked into the dish. Why raw mushrooms? For earthiness and texture. Dressed in a light vinaigrette, the mushrooms softened some, but still retained freshness and texture, adding a nice contrast to the berries. The berries are pickled in champagne vinegar and simple syrup, then tossed with a puree of juniper, more Saskatoon berries, and red wine.


Want a drink? Bastille and Stoneburner sommelier, James Lechner. Notice the pin on his lapel? Court of Masters Sommeliers. 


At the tail end of the event, I met Canlis chef Brady Williams. While I neglected to get a photo of his dish, it was the essence of simplicity. The brief description of his dish says, "Spot prawns, Vermouth, and Espelette." Scrawled in my notebook is this entry, "Most tender, delicious prawn I've ever had. He cooked it for just 3 minutes." What's the secret? Sous vide shimp and outstanding sourcing. The spot prawns came from a fisherman in Alaska. He says, "I bought his entire quota--1,400 pounds." 


Packing up for the night. Here's the Canlis gear. Sansaire sous vide, natch.

And finally, the after party at the Coterie Room. Pictured here is Sean Kenniff from StarChefs' NYC office, who introduced me to Mack McLaughlin of Greenman farm. Everyone has a story, right? According to Sean, Mack "transitioned late in life from furniture making and repair to raising microgreens because he thought there's gotta be a way he could make money from farming. He delivers his microgreens to restaurants alive, in dirt, still growing."


Cheers! To Seattle's Rising Stars. (Photo credit: Star Chefs)


Cooking with Kitchen Gypsy, Joanne Weir


For her 18th book, Joanne Weir's Kitchen Gypsy is a personal deep dive. One part scrap book, one part treasured recipes. It's like swapping tales with girlfriends over a glass of wine. Recipes like the Cafe Cake trigger memories of interviewing with Alice Waters for a job at Chez Panisse. A margarita making challenge that ultimately leads to opening her first restaurant--years after she'd already been an accomplished author with a long-running television series, and led countless culinary tours abroad.

And now, my own memories are inextricably linked to this book.

I received a note from my friend Renee. Come to dinner. Invite a few friends.

Joanne was in town touring with her new book. She had author events and interviews scheduled for several days. On her final day in Seattle, we gathered on a rain soaked evening at Renee's house. Longtime friends, for years I'd heard stories about Joanne's wedding (her cake had peaches), and their travels together in Morocco and beyond. And of course, I watched Joanne's show for years.

Chance of a lifetime? I'm in!

We decided to do a potluck based on Joanne's new book, Kitchen Gypsy. I arrived a bit early, and when Joanne came into the room, she was just like she is on TV, warm and engaging. Without thinking, I went to hug her hello.

The weather was awful (we've had record-breaking rainfall), and the rest of the guests arrived over the next hour. Looking back, it was intended to be a bunch of bloggers, but it turned out to be pros who happened to have food blogs. In addition to their dish, they all brought something special that was a reflection of them and their work.

Joanne made a couple dishes from her book. It has a heavy storytelling component and she elaborated on the stories. For the paella, she pointed to a photo of a handwritten index card in the book. Tattered and splattered, she said, "I've carried around that recipe for years!"

Cynthia Nims has authored 15 books and brought a copy of her latest, which isn't released yet. (Oysters: Bringing Home a Taste of the Sea. Amazon says it will be out mid-January.)

Kathleen Flynn, author of the best selling book, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, interviewed Joanne for a podcast earlier that day (also not released yet.) As a gift, she brought a copy of her latest book, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good. Kat's also a strong advocate for changing the food system and is currently working on a documentary with director Michael Moore.

Jason Price is a journalist who writes about food and has a pet passion for charcuterie. Last year, he spent two weeks working at The Fatted Calf and has been interviewing and writing about some of the best chefs in the business. He brought home cured culatello and tonnato de maile.

Nancy Croisier is a marketing and events manager from Efeste winery, and brought a range of bottles to pair with dinner.

Sara Sanford used to run the charitable foundation for a major league baseball player and now runs a women in finance initiative for a major financial institution and their West Coast giving program. She's a terrific home cook and one of my dearest friends (hello, moral support!)

Our host, Renee Behnke, is the former owner of Sur La Table (she sold a couple years ago) and as you can imagine, she's got entertaining down to an art form. Her home is open and spacious, and designed with entertaining in mind. Her husband, Carl, poured stiff drinks and got the conversation rolling. For a moment, I was distracted by their fabulous art collection--blown glass, lots of modern art, and over-sized original oil paintings that took up most of the wall space. Most homes can't accommodate art that large, and yet every room had something big and bold.

More than once I thought, "How did I get here?" Then Joanne would launch into a story about working with Alice Waters, or she and Renee would share a story from their travels abroad....It was surreal.

I remember growing up in Peoria, Illinois, which felt like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn fields. My mom would pour over the Sur La Table catalog. It was her lifeline into a world she could only dream about, and yet, somehow, I ended up at this dinner party.

I called my mom the next morning (after my hangover subsided).

***

I took photos most of the night, but as always, I wish I took more. Here's a few of the evening's highlights:

My friend Nancy is a huge Joanne Weir fan and it was a thrill to see them finally meet. Joanne is one of the few TV chefs who includes wine pairings. That, along with simply prepared but incredibly delicious recipes makes Nancy a lifelong fan. In fact, she had Joanne's book days after it was released.

A small sample of the wines paired with dinner.



Of course you'd expect the former owner of Sur La Table to have a drool-worthy kitchen! Check it out. Two marble-topped islands with open shelving underneath. Behind me is one walk-in pantry, and behind the Kat and Cynthia on the right, is another walk-in pantry. Off the kitchen is a large deck for entertaining, and there's a window cut into the wall for passing dishes through. Genius, no? A consummate entertainer, her house if filled with details like that.



The built in china cabinet and one of the refrigerators. Everyday china is stored here.


Wonderland, pantry-style. This pantry houses fine china, polished silver, stemware, and a few serving pieces. Notice the clean lines and terrific order? Looks like Sur La Table, no? Her mark is evident in every store.


This is a detail of a larger piece that hangs in the entry way. For scale, the face is taller than me.


I called earlier in the day and the table was already set. Entertaining pro tip: do everything you can well in advance. Instead of a runner, these glass horses lined the center of the table. Candle light flickered and illuminated the horses. Stunning, no?


Back in the kitchen, Joanne put the finishing touches on one of her dishes. This is a classic lesson in the beauty of simplicity and a few well chosen ingredients. I originally passed over this recipe, and it ended up being my favorite dish of the night!

Simply delicious. Toasted almonds and fennel seed, tossed in a food processor with anchovies (think: umami), fresh mint, orange zest, orange juice, and olive oil. Served on a toasted crostini, I'll be making this dish again and again. Easy, different, and delicious. A hallmark of Joanne's signature style.

Getting the oil just right. First it was too cool, then it was too hot. Renee is taking the temperature with a lazer reader, a la Alton Brown. Notice the built in bookcase behind Renee and Joanne? A cookbook library in the kitchen. Genius!

I saw Joanne cook this dish on her show, and decided it would be my contribution. It's a dish created for her Sausalito-based restaurant, Copita. For her version of papas bravas, starchy potatoes are baked until tender, then cut into large chunks. Deep fried along side flour-dusted rings of jalapeno, it's another winning appetizer from Kitchen Gypsy. Hot out of the oil, the potato and jalapeno are dusted with a spice mix of chile, cumin, lime zest, and salt. Served with a cooling dip of avocado and sour cream, it's a terrific bite. (Photo credit: Thomas J. Story)

Lessons learned: I brought the potatoes roasted, and both the spice mix and crema already finished. I was really glad Joanne was there and I got a chance to see her unflappable instructor skills in action. My spice mix was too spicy, so we added ground cumin and salt. The crema called for 'salt to taste' and she added more salt to make it pop. Slicing the chunks of potato, Joanne guided me, encouraging bigger pieces. Once the potatoes were out of the oil, it was clear why the bigger pieces were better. In this twice cooked method (baked, then fried), the bigger pieces were crispy on the outside, tender and fluffy inside. Smaller corner pieces were crispy all the way through.


Jason made the carrot soup with anise. This recipe is from the Chez Panisse chapter and it illustrates how a simple tweak--anise seed and anise liquor can turn a simple soup into a showstopper.


With a group of friends, there's nothing better than noshing in the kitchen before dinner. Here, Jason's homemade tonno de maile is being warmed in a shallow pan.


This is the outcome of a passion project gone wild. Jason's culatelo--the king of proscuitto. A hind leg of pork is deboned, stuffed into a beef bladder, salted, and hung in a curing chamber for 8-14 months. You know, no big deal. I didn't ask, but I'm guessing he also has a slicer for those consistent, transparently thin slices. If you want to see how it's made, step by step directions are on Jason's blog.


Renee likes to do a bit of moving around during dinner and I love her style. First we had drinks and nosh in the kitchen, then we sat at the table where she served a salad of  figs, grapes, pomegranate, persimmon, and a vinaigrette made with a late harvest riesling. Dinner was served back in the kitchen, buffet-style. Front to back: Whole roasted cauliflower with almond anchiode. Beef kefta with blood oranges on a bed of greens and a dressing of blood orange, champagne vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, and harissa. In the cast iron pot is Joanne's arroz con pollo.

By the time dessert rolled around, I forgot to take pictures. The Genoa cake with pistachio creme anglaise is another dish that will be on my regular rotation.

I love gatherings like this. With everyone contributing a dish from a cookbook, it provides a wonderful opportunity to put a focus on dinner, share the fun of cooking, and inevitably, someone makes a dish I would have never tried on my own. Having the author there to field questions and swap stories? Priceless!


***

My friend Renee is a passionate gardener. I missed seeing her garden this summer, but walking through her garden together is an experience I'll never forget. The entire front yard is edible. In the back, one section is a vegetable garden with multiple varieties of tomatoes, garlic, etc. Whenever possible, she brings seeds back from her travels, so nearly every plant has a story.

Over the coarse of this year, I met Aileen Bordman, who works with the Monet estate in France. Her mother helped restore the gardens at Giverny and has been in residence there since 1980. In addition to Monet's now famous water lilies, he was also a passionate gardener and cook. Aileen's documentary, Monet's Palate, traces the journey and her friend Meryl Streep does the narration. This year, she released a companion cookbook (pictured above). Aileen sent me poppy seeds from Monet's garden at Giverny and books for both of us. I finally got a chance to give Renee hers at dinner.


Speaking of gardens, Renee grabbed her iPad and shared a photo of her rose garden from this summer. Stunning, no? If only Monet could have seen this!