Tag Archives: friendships

How a Foodie Eats the Perfect Meal

friends around a table having a great meal

I always find it funny when someone asks me if I’m a foodie.  I guess I am, I love eating both at home and out.  It doesn’t matter how close or far away, how casual or fancy the place is, food trucks are good too as far as I’m concerned.  The only criteria I insist on, no matter the price of the meal, is that the food has got to be good.

I do love McDonald’s French Fries, a double-double protein style from In-n-Out Burger all the way to my own personal must-have – my monthly visit to Maude in Beverly Hills for their phenomenal prix-fixe dinners. I will not however spend money, no matter how inexpensive or popular a place is, unless the food is good.

Having said all of that, except for the prix-fixe dinners, my friends always defer to me when we are ordering our meal. That is not to say that I do not ask everyone if there is a dish on the menu that looks good to them or, if they’ve been to the place before, if there’s something that they love in particular.

I absolutely do ask those questions.  You have to consider who is with you and what you know about their eating habits – you know – what they like to eat and if they’re willing to stretch their comfort zone a little.  I have my limits on the stretching – I’m all about the texture so I just can’t do some things – chicken wings for one as I don’t like what I refer to as “snappy” things.   I’ve acquired a taste for octopus but I’ve discovered it has to be grilled which dries it out a bit and not poached – slimey!

I’m completely out of the habit of ordering my own appetizer and entrée.  I just don’t do it anymore – it’s not fun!  We are always the group next to you that orders several dishes “for the table” and it looks like we have ordered way too much food (sometimes it’s true) but it’s really so that we can all share and taste multiple items from the chef.

My friends tell me that I’m the best at ordering a meal and I say that it’s a trick to know how to order around a menu.  I’ll let you in on my secret.

I find that the appetizers on a menu tend to be more interesting than the entrées so I will generally order a few of those, then at least one from the salad section (depending on the group size this may go to 2-3), at least one side vegetable and, again depending on the group size, a couple of entrées that we all share.  Try not to repeat items from the appetizers to the entrées – if the appetizer has crab then don’t order a crab entrée.

If you’ve done this correctly everyone has tasted multiple dishes, there’s not too much left on the table and everyone has room to share a couple of desserts.  I’m one of those that a spoonful or two of something sweet is enough for me.  Try it the next time you’re out, it works with just one friend too.  Just sayin’.

Not Your Usual Pasta Making Class

I’m going to confess something here, (for those that know me it’s not that big of a secret), I absolutely love pasta in all its’ forms.  I will eat it hot, cold, with or without sauce – I’m shameless when it comes to this particular carb.  But, I never actually attempted to make it at home.  I always assumed (we all know what we get when we assume anything) that it was a complicated process even though I’d been assured many times by my chef friends that it was really a very simple one.

So, when I was planning one of my Relationship Recipe events, I tapped an Italian friend, one of my experts who loves to teach people to cook, to give the group a lesson on pasta making.  He was delighted with the prospect and the event was a spectacular success.  We all learned that if we used his technique making pasta was indeed really simple to do – a little messy but simple.  I was inspired.

It naturally followed that I decided to explore pasta making classes during my recent trip to the Emilia Romagna area of Italy. I wanted to see if there was any difference from what Luca had taught us that night and the Nonnas’ (grandmothers’) technique or that of a 1 Star Michelin Chef, all of whom had agreed to teach my girlfriend and I how to make pasta.  Until this trip I hadn’t realized that you could take a class with such special teachers – they were both unbelievable experiences and completely different from each other.

My first class in Italy was with the Nonnas at Trattoria da Amerigo (a 1 Michelin Star restaurant) in the tiny town of Savigno.  It was a morning class and three women greeted us as we walked in – two sisters and a third who looked a bit younger.  One of the sisters “supervised” while the other two women worked with us.

All pasta dough starts with a “ring” of pasta flour on the work surface.  In Los Angeles my Italian friend added salt to the flour along with the whole eggs, here the Nonnas added only the eggs – no salt.  But, their eggs were very special.  They explained (in Italian through our interpreter) that they use only the eggs from chickens that are specially bred for the color and richness of the yolks.  The yolks were ORANGE – I wasn’t expecting that.  All pasta dough is then kneaded until smooth.  These ladies taught us to roll out the dough to the desired thickness.  I thought that was hard work until they showed us how to shape tortellini – that took a great deal of coordination.  It was more difficult than I thought it would be!

But the lesson was indeed inspiring and I decided to buy some special pasta flour during our visit to Il Mulino del Dottore – a centuries-old stone mill in the area that still operates daily.  I figured I would go home and make my own pasta from real Italian pasta flour!

I knew that we had another pasta making lesson planned with Chef Massimo Spigaroli who received his Michelin star in 2011 – the Executive Chef at Antica Corte Pallavicina where we were staying one night. I was looking forward to seeing what he would do differently from both my Italian friend and the Nonnas in Savigno.

Chef Massimo not only added salt to the flour like my Italian friend but also a drizzle of olive oil which neither of the other two did.  Now I was really confused as to which way was the correct way. But I learned that everyone has their own style and it just depends on how you were taught and how you like your pasta to taste.  Hum, no right way!!

Chef Massimo also used an electric pasta machine to “roll” out his pasta after he had kneaded it.  I imagine this is because he’s used to making pasta for the entire restaurant so volume is important.  What I also learned is that one batch of pasta dough can serve as many purposes as you want – it just depends on how you cut it, shape it, or if you fill it.  The best part, of course, was that we got to eat what we had made for lunch.  Delicious!  I decided to buy some of the pasta flour that they have there as well.

Now I have two different pasta flours, both purchased on my trip. I’m going to plan a night of pasta making with friends and see if we can tell any difference in texture or taste between the two.  I can’t wait.

 

 

Travel Planning is Everything Until It’s Not

da Amerigo 1934 - Akasha, Alberto, Helena, and Fran

Different people plan their trips differently.  Some love to just “wing it” and decide what they will do and where they will sleep once they get to a destination. Sometimes they don’t even plan a destination past their original stopping place.  I am definitely not one of those people.

I cannot go away without making sure all of my “ducks are in a row.”  I have to have my flights and any other transportation I might need completely planned and ticketed long before I ever leave home which includes any travel between cities either by train, car, or any other method.  I have to know exactly where I am sleeping each night and what that hotel/B&B/resort looks like and which category of room I have reserved and confirmed.  I do a little research about where I am going so that I don’t miss any “must see” places or restaurants I have to try.  I’m one of those.  And, because I am one of those, I was always what I would call the travel agent in my family; maybe it was a little bit of a control issue – I don’t know.

Savigno Italy Map

Well, this last trip I was able to leave the planning to my girlfriend – Akasha Richmond – who is immensely more meticulous in her research and planning than even I.  We were perfectly matched.  I made sure that we bought all of our tickets and confirmed all of our lodgings. Akasha did enormous research about what was in the area that we were traveling to – in this case Emilia Romagna, Italy – and where we should visit and eat so that we fit in as much as possible in the time we had.

We had one day in Savigno, a small town in the Province of Bologna southwest of the city of Bologna.  Akasha wanted to eat at Trattoria da Amerigo (a one Michelin star restaurant) in Savigno and was researching what else was in the area for us to see.  She found Helena Kyriakides (a Sommelier FISAR and a qualified Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano taster), whose company Yummy Italy, had an amazing reputation for arranging personal visits to various artisanal producers in the area. And we even had time to meet the owner, Alberto Bettini, who was an incredible host.

Helena took us to a small Parmigiano Reggiano maker that makes their cheese by hand and produces only 14 wheels per day.  After taking us on a tour of their facility, watching the process (passed down from generation to generation), getting to taste warm ricotta that was made from the cheese production that we watched that morning, we moved on to a winemaker.  She had organized for us to eat lunch with the winemaker in his home, taste his award-winning wines and enjoy his wife’s cooking.  The winemaker kept complaining that we weren’t drinking enough!!

When he found out that Akasha preferred goat cheese, he decided that we should visit one of his friends who has an organic goat farm and makes goat cheese.  He piled us all into his jeep, and we took off.  We were really glad we were in his Jeep because the goat farm was up a narrow gravel road and it was raining.  Akasha got to see the goats and taste some wonderful goat cheese – completely unplanned!

The last stop of our day with Helena was to Il Mulino del Dottore (part of the slow food movement in Italy), The Mill of the Doctor, a 17th-century building with a very old flour mill made of four millstones and run by water from the Venola stream nearby.  From the flour that they mill they produce all the products that are sold in their tiny shop as well as at various organic markets in the area– breads, cookies, dried pastas and of course flour.  They were some of the best cookies we had ever tasted!  I bought some pasta flour to use at home, dried pasta and some honey.

Our day with Helena from Yummy Italy made one thing perfectly clear – even when you think you’ve planned for everything you have to be open to the possibility of a slight detour that can take you to a place you never knew existed.  In our case to the wonderful goat farm.  Helena was perfect and our day with her couldn’t have been any better.

By the way, our dinner that night at Trattoria da Amerigo was everything we hoped for and more, and we got a pasta cooking class with the Nonnas (grandmothers) the next morning; courtesy of my friend’s expert planning!

In the photo above (from left to right), you see my girlfriend Akasha Richmond, Alberto Bettini, Helena Kyriakides, and me.

Recipe for Cranberry-Cherry Compote for Thanksgiving All Year!

Cranberry-Cherry Compote

Recipe by Anna Stockwell

Who doesn’t remember Cranberry Sauce, especially the Ocean Spray “jelly” kind in the can?  I loved that stuff growing up and could never understand why we only ate it once a year at Thanksgiving.  My palate has grown a little bit since those days so I’m always looking for an easy but tasty recipe for something that actually resembles cranberries but more of an actual relish.  I think I found it in this year’s November issue of Epicurious. I haven’t made it yet but I’m definitely going to if only to put on sandwiches with sliced turkey- who doesn’t love a taste of Thanksgiving all year?

Ingredients

  • 20 ounces frozen or fresh cranberries (about 4 1/2 cups)
  • 10 ounces frozen dark sweet cherries (about 2 cups)
  • 1 1/4 cups (packed) brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup bourbon

Instructions

  1. Bring cranberries, cherries, brown sugar, cider, and pepper to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan. Cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, then stir in bourbon. Reduce heat, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring often and pushing fruit against the side of the pan with the back of a wooden spoon to break apart slightly, until thick and syrupy, about 25 minutes more. Let cool completely.
  2. Do Ahead: Sauce can be made 5 days ahead; cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

 

Online Dating? Skype Before a Visit!

Dating sucks but online dating can REALLY suck. I thought, though, for a hot minute that it was a good idea for me, so I signed up for a couple of sites. I was cruising along checking it all out, finding out that I really didn’t want to go meet someone for coffee just for practice. The acceptable gene pool was REALLY, REALLY tiny!

Anyway, I started messaging with someone who lived on the east coast (I’m on the west coast) and we spent a lot of time on the phone, as well. He had me convinced that the distance was not an issue as he traveled for work and I travel to NYC, as well, so we could meet fairly often if it all worked out. He sounded pretty great on paper, his pictures looked OK and his family looked pretty stable (at least in the photos). Let’s just say that when we finally met in person, after about 6 months of communication, there was more than one reason why he couldn’t manage to send me any recent pictures of himself! My takeaway from all of this…

NEVER agree to meet ANYONE who lives far away WITHOUT SEEING HIM ON SKYPE FIRST!

The First 10 Minutes, Why They’re So Important

I’m reminded regularly of one of my basic truths. A person will tell you who they are within the first 10 minutes of meeting them. It’s funny but we all do the same thing when we meet someone for the first time – we make assumptions about their character, how nice or angry they are, if they seem genuinely happy in their life, if they’re rich or bright. Listen carefully. You know about assumptions.”

This is the thing. That’s why it’s so important that in those first 10 minutes when you first meet a person. You have to listen to what they are saying – truly listen and not assume. This means not only listening to what they are saying but also to what they aren’t saying. When we don’t listen carefully, we either miss the red flags that are waving wildly in our faces or, just maybe, the fabulous person in front of us.

How Many Full Moons Do We Have Left?

It’s funny. We all find ourselves getting cranky over something that someone else has said or done to us that we perceive as mean. I know for a fact that I’m guilty of that. I’ve always said that I may forgive but that doesn’t mean that I forget – mind of an elephant and all that.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was complaining to a really wise girlfriend about just that – a slight that I thought I had received from someone else and what I thought I would or could do about it. She looked at me kind of funny and then she asked, “How many full moons do you think you have left in this life? Is this worth the 5 minutes we are talking about it, much less spending any time actually doing anything about it?”

Her answer stopped me COLD and at that point, I decided I was going to let “it” go. I’ve been reminding myself of that ever since. I think it’s a pretty good thing to remember.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

There are days when we all hate the mirror. I agree that whoever said that the mirror doesn’t lie was actually telling the truth. I’ll look in the mirror and think I’m either “fat” or my skin doesn’t look good that day or I REALLY need to put makeup on or…or…or. We all have those days and sadly the mirror is always telling the truth at that moment. The thing that I’m most grateful for though is that it CAN’T LAUGH!!! That would be awful…

Valentine’s Day for Singles?

Fran Berger

Valentine’s Day is less than a week away and when it does come I will have been single for the last three of them.  It’s not exactly the most fun day- evening thing to look forward to if you don’t have a significant other in your life. But U.S. retailers really push the holiday anyhow.

February 14th is one of the busiest days at restaurants; at least, it always was at mine and if anyone has ever tried to get last-minute dinner reservations anywhere for that night you’ve seen that I’m right.  We are bombarded by “reminders” to get a gift, card, flowers – whatever – for the other person in our lives. What about all of us “singles” out there who (by choice or otherwise) are alone on that day?

Here’s what I’ve decided. This Valentine’s Day, I’m going to invite a group of my friends over, and we will laugh a lot, munch on our favorite finger foods but, most importantly of all, we will raise a glass of bubbles (maybe a few glasses) to friendship!  In many respects, my group of friends is my significant other. They laugh with me and cry with me; they support me when I need the back-up. They love me (not unconditionally but with empathy and understanding), they are always there for me.  Oh, and they tell me when I’m completely full of it (even if it’s not what I want to hear). I depend on their honesty and clear sight.  If that’s not a good part of what we all look for in a significant other, then I’m not sure what is.  It’s not everything but it’s a lot, and I’m lucky to have this group of women in my life – my friends – my sisters by choice.  Just sayin’.

Fran’s Soapbox: There’s Only One Winner

I’m going to step on my soap box now so be warned! When I was growing up, medals, trophies and awards were all things that you worked hard for, practiced hard for. It was still the case when my kids were growing up. That’s not the case anymore in so many ways and it makes me crazy. I don’t understand why people feel the need to acknowledge a child’s simple participation in an activity with a trophy -this isn’t the way of the world. What did they do to earn that trophy? Did they simply say “ok” when Mom or Dad said, “you have to play little league”? – Like they had a choice.

The world we live in is a very competitive place. People study and work hard to achieve a certain status in their field – they are not given awards simply because they thought it might be an interesting occupation or because their sibling is doing the same thing and their parent thinks it’s a good idea for them to do it too. It’s just not how it works; it has never been how it works. That’s not to say that some, very few, don’t achieve status through nepotism or because they were born into a certain family but those few know that’s how they got there and it is definitely not how the vast majority of us got where we are.

The idea that we have to be “careful” of our child’s feelings, ego or sense of self…or make sure we don’t do anything to dampen their spirit is not going to help them navigate the real world. I’m definitely NOT advocating cruelty, meanness, or bullying. Quite the opposite. Not only was I bullied in grammar school (we moved a lot, I skipped a grade, was small, etc.) but my eldest was, as well, so I’m very sensitive to how mean kids can get.

What I am saying is that we have to be honest with our children. The world around them is not going to give them anything extra just because they participated. The accolades should come from us as parents in the form of encouragement, not a trophy.

Kids are smart. They know when they deserve something and when they don’t. They will certainly know it when they have a shelf full of trophies for “participation” or being a “team member” and they still don’t get to pitch in the game when they get a couple of years older and the real competition starts.

I asked a friend who coaches a competition team of young kids his opinion. He said all of the kids on his team know that the participation ribbon they give to everyone who shows up is, in his words, “stupid and useless”. He said it was the organization that his team is a part of that has the rule that everyone gets something. If the kids know it’s bogus what’s the point?

So, be completely frank with your kids. In a ski race, there is only ONE person that comes down the mountain first. Only one who clocks the shortest time. It’s the skier that not only had the talent but also practiced like there was no tomorrow. Let your kids know that there is only ONE person who deserves that trophy – the person that did the work. Do your kids a favor – be honest with them.

My favorite recipe for a Girls Night – YAH!

I’m often asked what my favorite “girls night” recipes are. dsc_4281

I like the ones that are good for catching up and remind us of old memories. Especially once the summer and the backyard cookouts are over, I’m also more interested in making things that require a little more attention to detail. That doesn’t have to mean they are more complicated, though. When I plan a “girls night” I’ve found that it’s always more fun to munch on finger food and drink a good glass of wine than eat a full meal. This allows everyone (including me) to gather around the table and catch up on life and not have to get up to serve.

Good friends are like a great meal – they should be savored.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Always serve a simple cheese plate with 2-3 different cheeses (pick a cow, goat and sheep perhaps, making sure there is one soft, one semi soft and one hard cheese), some loose nuts, dried fruit, fig spread (I use Dalmatia Dried Fig Spread) and of course some great crackers.
  • If you are a meat eater, be sure to do a simple charcuterie board, as well. Use 3 or 4 meats that are all different. Perhaps a peppery salami, a country pâté and a good prosciutto. All of these can be found in the refrigerated section of a good grocery store and don’t have to be expensive. Simply choose your favorites.
  • A small bowl of mixed olives are also a good thing to add to your table.
  • If you like vinegary things (I do), add a small bowl of cornichon pickles.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, don’t put prosciutto on the charcuterie, but roll small asparagus spears (that you have blanched) in small pieces of prosciutto and cook them in a sauté pan until crisp. They look very fancy but are really easy to make.
  • Swedish meatballs are always a good go-to for me on a cool fall evening. Many delis have them premade or you can use this recipe that I like.
  • Last but not least – make sure you have several mini veggies on a plate with a simple sour cream dip.

Pasta Recipe: Bucatini With Tomato, Guanciale, And Chile

Bucatini With Tomato, Guanciale, & Chile

Original Recipe by April Bloomfield & Josh Evan

I love a good Pasta Carbonara, but sometimes the combo of the bacon and eggs can get a “little much”. I found this in the September 2014 issue of Bon Appétit. It looks amazing and simple AND they use tomatoes instead of eggs – it’s going to be my next pasta with friends!

Ingredients
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 4 ounces guanciale (salt-cured pork jowl) or pancetta, very thinly sliced
  • ½ medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 12 ounces bucatini
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 ounce Pecorino, finely grated
  • Olive oil (for serving)
Instructions
  1. Microwave rosemary on high in 20-second intervals until leaves are brittle, about 60 seconds.
  2. Remove leaves and grind to a fine powder with a spice mill or mortar and pestle; you should have about 1 tsp. (Alternatively, very finely chop leaves.)
  3. Cook guanciale in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until guanciale is browned and crisp, 10–12 minutes. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
  4. Cook onion in same skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until softened and golden brown, 8–10 minutes.
  5. Return all but 2 Tbsp. guanciale to skillet and add tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and rosemary powder.
  6. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened, 5–8 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 8–10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.
  8. Add pasta and ½ cup pasta cooking liquid to sauce. Cook over medium heat, tossing and adding more cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta, about 2 minutes.
  9. Serve pasta topped with Pecorino and remaining 2 Tbsp. guanciale and drizzled with oil.