Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Blueberries You Can Make at the Ocean

I recently went on a two-day vacation to the ocean with my mother. I thought it would be a good thing for us to get away and reconnect outside of Seattle, outside of all my father's shirts still hanging in their closet, his shoes at the foot of the stairs and even his breath mints sitting on his desk next to his watch. Each morning, I can imagine these constant reminders making the nights longer, everyday tasks more challenging and the healing process of trying to move on seem like walking in wet cement.

Not only was it good for both of us to get out of town, it was great for us to go together. I'm 31 years-old and I have never been on a road trip with my mother by myself. It's always been family outings growing up, laughably classic were our family's 24-hour vacations to be exact. We didn't have a ton of money growing up, so our vacations were short and sweet.

While on our trip, my mother brought all the necessary ingredients to make vanilla panna cotta with fresh blueberries. I guess this is where I get it from! Who brings ingredients to cook while on vacation? Let alone panna cotta? Shouldn't we be making Smores? Well, the cabin that we stayed in had a kitchen and she wanted to use up some blueberries, in all honesty. So naturally, she packed ramekins.

The first evening after we checked in, I decided if we were going to make the panna cotta, we had better make it first thing in the morning, so that it would set while we were out and about on the beach. Before I had a chance to get the dessert started, I actually woke up the next morning by a smell. Sure, anyone can wake up by noise or touch, but waking up to my mom's breakfast hash browns might be the most comforting sensation I could imagine. How a woman battling her own cervical cancer could be up making coffee, chopping onions, peppers and potatoes was beyond me. I remember feeling like a guilty slug under the covers realizing it was almost nine and I hadn't stirred once as I heard her stirring a pan of a hundred aromas in the teeny cabin kitchen.

Maybe it was just as much of a treat for her as it was for me- her making me breakfast, like I was a kid again? I'm not sure. She likely has no idea how good those homemade hash browns with one of her own chickens' eggs fried on top, were to me.

The thing is, my mother, like anyone else in her situation hasn't been cooking lately. For the past five months, if it wasn't because of pain, it was lack of time. She never left my father's side, and if she did, it was to grab something quickly. Who was inspired to cook? There were times when I would come over and ask what she had eaten that day. Sometimes I would get there at 5:30 and all she had had was a hard-boiled egg and a half of a banana.  It sent me into chef-overdrive. Sometimes I would cook up to five dishes before leaving, just to make sure my mom, little sister and my father had something healthy to eat. This is where I need to add that I wasn't alone in this! My siblings, aunts, my mom's close friends and my father's co-workers all came each week with arms laden with casseroles, chicken soup and warm Crockpots. When it comes to crisis, everyone needs food made with love.

I realize this closing recipe should be of those peppery, onion-y salty, potatoes that my mom made for me at the ocean, but I felt it appropriate to leave you a lasting impression of why I cook today. Making a big deal out of making vanilla panna cotta is weird to my mom. Why not? "It's so easy," she would say, "and I LOVE panna cotta!"

I ended up making the panna cotta that morning, while she painted her fingernails on the couch. After a great stroll through the town of Long Beach, kite flying on the shore and too much salt water taffy, we ended up splitting just one of 4 panna cottas after a heavy razor clam pasta at dinner. It was something we could share, something  you can't buy in a box and most definitely something that is so my mother.

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Blueberries -Makes 8 6 oz. servings Recipe from Foodista

2 3/4 ounces unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup half and half
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup fresh blueberries

Lightly oil the ramekins
Sprinkle gelatin over the cold water and let stand for a minute to soften.
Combine cream, half and half, and sugar in a 3 quart saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium high heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

Remove from heat
Stir one cup of the cream mixture into the gelatin, then stir the cream and gelatin mixture back into the saucepan. Stir in vanilla

Divide the cream mixture among the ramekins and let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until the panna cotta is set (at least 4 hours)
To remove from ramekins, dip one at a time into a bowl of hot water for 3 seconds, then run a thin flexible knife around the inside edge of the ramekin. Tilt it slightly so that the panna cotta pulls away from the sides.
Invert ramekin onto a plate so that the panna cotta slips out.
Top with fresh blueberries and serve.

Panna Cotta

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Wine Blogger Conference Wrap Up

“I’m brimming with inspiration and fired up to write!”
That was the mutual afterglow of the wine bloggers who attended the 2010 Wine Blogger’s Conference. The three-day conference was held at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla, Washington; an anticipated change from previous wine blogger conference venues in the California wine country.
Would wine bloggers actually make the trip out to this teeny town in the middle of nowhere? A sold out attendance of 300 wine bloggers with a waiting list proved they would! By seeing a show of hands that almost half the room was first time conference attendees, I assume their waiting lists will only grow in time.

From the moment I arrived, it was like I had walked in on a family reunion. “It’s so nice to finally meet you!” was the common greeting. Even though many of these people had not met yet, they all knew each other very well. There were far more hugs than handshakes; these people go way back, before their small wine blog had its own domain name, before their hobby took over their day jobs. Joe of, who won this year’s Best Wine Blog Overall award, had more than three bloggers come up to him within twenty minutes of his arrival to offer their condolences about the health of his dog, Sam, a common topic in his posts.
This was my first Wine Blogger’s Conference and I was quite impressed. Zepyhr Adventures organized 300 wine bloggers for three days, and stayed on schedule to the last half hour of the conference.  Every attendee I met had nothing but great things to say about the venue, speakers and the overall experience.

Some Notable Highlights
  • Hot topics discussed throughout the weekend were on mobile apps, vlogging (video blogging), transition of old media verses new media and the importance of finding your voice.
  • Impressive keynote speeches from Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast and Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal offered great insight on print media verses digital media and both stressed the great responsibility for bloggers to be transparent.
  • The Friday taco truck lunch provided a unique experience that was very playful and delicious.
  • The evening wine tasting at the tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla offered outsiders a great opportunity to see the town and sample some of Walla Walla’s best.
  • The Saturday field trip out to different wineries to experience a vineyard tour and listen to a panel of wine makers discuss secrets of wine making was eye-opening. Who knew Semillon was so incredibly underrated?  Winemakers Caleb L.E. Foster of Buty, Jay Soloff of DeLille and MartinClubb of L'Ecole N 41 proved how much I had underestimated this varietal.
  • Chef John Sarich of Chateau Ste. Michelle winery paired delicious beef and morel sliders with Northstar wines on Friday night.
  • Saturday night bloggers had the opportunity to dine with a winemaker at their table while gourmet dishes, made by Chef Hank "Bear" Ullman from the Marcus Whitman Hotel, were passed around.
  • My personal favorite speaker of the conference was Chef Jeffrey Saad, who speaks as passionately as he writes about food and wine.
  • And, lastly, we ended with an unbelievable wine and food pairing lunch at the Marcus Whitman on Sunday that I am still talking about.

Overall, I learned that I wasn’t writing nearly enough as a blogger. Steve Heimoff believes it’s important to blog 5 days a week. Many other wine bloggers argued that bloggers need to write every day.  Wine bloggers were very passionate about promoting honesty and originality in wine blogging. Just because wine writing is moving digital, doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as meaningful.
Equally stressed,  was the  importance of voice.  It takes time to write content that is really you. “Write as if you are writing a letter to your best friend.” That was a great piece of advice from wine writer, Lettie Teague on finding your true voice.

Wine Blog Awards Announced at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Best Wine Blog Graphics, Photography, & Presentation: Good Grape
Best Industry/Business Wine Blog: Criteria: Good Grape
Best Wine Reviews on a Wine Blog: Bigger Than Your Head
Best Single Subject Wine Blog: Criteria: New York Cork Report
Best Winery Blog: Criteria: Been Doon So Long
Best Writing On a Wine Blog: Catavino
Best New Wine Blog: Criteria: Swirl, Smell Slurp
Best Overall Wine Blog: Criteria: 1 Wine Dude

Due to the extended rain this year, the Walla Walla countryside was lush and more green than what was typical for late June, and the weather was gorgeous all weekend. As a Washington gal, I was grinning with pride for Walla Walla. Not just for its scenic beauty, but for the remarkable wine making talent that is coming from this region.  The Wine Bloggers Conference exceeded my expectations. I met some incredible people and was truly inspired. I can only imagine what is in store in 2011 when the conference is in Charlottesville, Virginia.

***This post was previously published on the Foodista Blog

Monday, June 28, 2010

Taking Stock

Time warp. That is what happens when you miss spring entirely and suddenly it's summer.  It's been just over two months since my dad passed away and I feel like I am finally hitting the brakes and taking a deep breath. There is a lot to take in if you have been going for six years without ever slowing down.

After my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer last September, my life took an entirely different path. I was careening full speed ahead with projects. I had just wrapped up publishing the fourth EAT & DRINK in the Northwest recipe book and transitioning out of my position at the Herbfarm, where I was as an apprentice in the culinary gardens, to focus full time at Foodista as an Editor and Community Developer.

On learning the news of my father, Mark and I were on month six of the seven months that we lived with my brother while our new house was being remodeled. We lived out of a small bedroom that we nicknamed, "the dorm room."  We expected our stay to be a temporary situation of course, so sleeping on a single mattress on the floor was only suppose to be a month- long slumber party.

I absolutely adore my brother, and he is a saint for taking us in. I miss hanging out with him at his bachelor pad, drinking wine over philosophical conversations or laughing while watching late night crappy reality T.V. I miss cooking for him. I think I put more miles on his kitchen stove in those few months, then it may ever see in its lifetime. 
While my parents sought treatment for my father, I fully believed he would survive it. We all did. Here is a man that worked out every single day of his life and followed a regimented vitamin supplement routine. In saying that, I continued ahead full speed on work, convinced that everything would be fine.

Four months into my father's own treatment, my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She kept it a secret from most of our extended family for almost two months. She continued to be a full time caretaker for my father, and denied seeking serious treatment for herself. The months that followed were living hell.

(I won't go into details here, but I do want to say that my mother is almost done with her cancer treatment and is improving every day. Her pain is gone and she's even putting on weight!)  

                                                                   *    *   *  *  *
Previous to September, and especially before hearing about my mom, I believed  I had everything going for me. I was so excited and inspired to write creative recipes and learn how to garden. I had just bought my first house with my husband and then I found Foodista! It was an unreal dream come true.

But then, all the pieces I had worked so hard to connect began to unravel. I lost the ability to focus. If I wasn't at work, I was taking care of my parents; cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and being a nurse for them. I barely saw Mark, I never took a break and suddenly I was overwhelmed, consumed and in complete denial that I needed  help. There were four of us kids, all taking turns to be of help and none of us asked for help. I felt that if I stopped to take a break, I was a failure. Looking back now, I should have taken time off a long time ago. But like my boss said, "It's hard to see it, when you are in it."

                                                                 *    *   *  *  *

Now I'm currently on week five of a six week break from work. I was trying to calculate when the last time I had taken an extended break. I took a week off for my dad's funeral.  But before then, the last time I took any length of time off was on my honeymoon, almost six years ago. A delicious two weeks. Prior to that I was in culinary school, cooking in restaurants and bartending, starting my own catering company, writing the E&D books, working as a full-time copywriter & gardening up to four days a week.
My main goal now is to reconnect with myself. Doesn't that just sound cheesy? Like something I would repeat out loud in a support group setting. Honestly though, I am taking a step back and looking intensely at what drives me and inspires the hell out of me.

My good friend Kelly told me that when her husband, Dave, another good friend of mine gets stressed, he makes stock. I think this is an extremely good idea. In fact, as I am typing this, my entire house smells like a catering kitchen I used to work at. I have a large pot of pheasant stock on the stove simmering away. I have finally made stock out of two pheasant carcasses that have been in my freezer for months. I've only stopped typing now and then to skim the surface of impurities or adjust the heat.

I had a chef tell me once, the way to manage your time in the kitchen is to have something in the oven, on the stove and on your cutting board at all times. As a person who is now trying to find that focus, balance and motivation to move on, I can think of nothing more satisfying than writing a long-over due blog post, while stock gently bubbles away.

Pheasant Stock

2 pheasant carcasses, (if bones are not previously roasted, I would suggest it prior to making stock)
1 half medium onion, chopped
3 medium  celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
1 tsp. whole black pepper corns
4-6 sprigs of your favorite fresh herbs
1 large pot
Plenty of cold tap water

Add the pheasant carcasses in a large pot and cover with cold water, at least two extra inches above. Add chopped onion, celery and carrots to the pot. It's important to try and keep vegetables all chopped about the same size. This is important for breaking down equal distribution of flavor. When some of the vegetables are cut bigger than others, the cooking time will vary, giving off a disproportion of flavors. Add peppercorns and choice of herbs. I added 1 half sprig rosemary, 1 sprig of oregano and some fresh thyme. Bring to a slow simmer and cook for 2-4 hours. Skim the surface every so often and discard the fatty oils and brownish/ gray scum at the top. Strain into a large heat-proof container to cool. Chill or freeze until you need it!

Homemade Pheasant Stock on FoodistaHomemade Pheasant Stock