When I think about Christmas cookies, I think of the magnificent and decorative almond-flavored cookie-press cookies my great-grandmother used to make. Shaped like trees or candy canes, in one color or many, they were tradition. Every Christmas. Cookie-press cookies. It was like clockwork. Admittedly, I’ve tried a few times over the years to recreate her infamous treats, but to no avail. I just can’t seem to mimic her recipe.
Thanksgiving is now officially behind us, and the gift-giving season of Christmas is (acceptably) in full-swing. At home, our stockings have been hung, our tree has been decorated and gifts are already wrapped and waiting patiently under the tree for Christmas morning. I’m telling you – I love this stuff. Swoon.
I’ve always been head-over-heels in love with Christmas. For me, it’s everything. The colors (white and gold), the sounds (“Last Christmas”), the scents (pine trees and baked goods), the traditions (candle carousels, Chinese food and Charlie Brown trees) and the sights (gifts under the tree and smiling faces). I believe it brings out the best in people – the spirit of Christmas is kind and giving.
But my favorite thing about Christmas is giving gifts. And not just any gift. The perfect gift.
Since we’ve moved into our new home two months ago, we’ve rarely had a moment to sit down and soak in this feeling of being homeowners. Together, we’ve traveled to Philadelphia, Nashville, Maryland and Las Vegas. Separately, we’ve covered 1500 miles across the state of Texas, and some time in State College. We’ve been busy, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, being busy is something I love – I’m happy to see as much of this world as I can. But as someone who is innately and extraordinarily introverted, I need some time to be relaxed and unwind. Some time to be home.
From the time I was little, I’ve enjoyed being in the kitchen. I remember making cookies in various holiday shapes and dousing them in a sickeningly sweet icing. The first dish I ever really mastered was a simple salmon dinner, and I made it as often as I could. During every family gathering my family has ever held in Maryland, I’ve been recruited to add my special touch to the overflowing pot of mashed potatoes on the stove. Just a few years ago, I made one heck of a blueberry pie, and I still daydream about it sometimes.
So, when I found myself with a few plan-free hours, and after all of my cookware had finally been unpacked, I headed into the kitchen, armed with a recipe for homemade pecan sandies. (At least Facebook was good for something during this tumultuous and drama-filled election week, right?)
Ingredients: 2 c. flour / 2 sticks salted butter, room temperature / 1 egg / 1/2 c. sugar / 2 tsp. vanilla / 1 tsp. salt / 1 tsp. baking soda / 1 c. pecans, chopped (plus a few whole to top each cookie)
Directions: Preheat oven to 350˚F, and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. / Mix together sugar, egg, butter and vanilla until creamy. / Separately, combine flour, salt and baking soda. / Slowly add dry ingredients to wet mixture until combined. / Fold chopped pecans into batter. / Scoop dough onto cookie sheet, topping with a whole pecan. / Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until golden. / Serve immediately with a cup of piping hot coffee. If that’s your thing.
I’m not a politically outspoken woman. In fact, talking about politics genuinely makes me uncomfortable. It’s not because I’m uninformed or because I lack an opinion or because my belief system is weak. But the truth is much more simple: I believe that every person has the right to their own opinions, even they don’t align with mine. Some people say that’s absurd. But it’s who I am, and it’s not likely to change.
When charged with the task of choosing a restaurant for a work-related meet-and-greet dinner, I was thrilled. I love choosing restaurants, and since moving home, I had created a list that had yet to be explored. So, through a relatively uninspired process of elimination, I chose The Millworks, a restaurant in Midtown, completely sight unseen.
Skyler and I were the first to arrive, and as we stepped through the front door, I was struck by something I wasn’t expecting to find inside of a restaurant: art – and lots of it. It turns out, The Millworks is home to 31 different artists, each with an open-concept studio. Guests are able to peruse the entire 24,000 square foot space, watching artists create a variety of pieces. Some artists’ studios are even visible from your seat at the bar. Find something you like? Well, you can purchase a myriad of goods from gallery.
As the rest of the gang trickled in, we took our seats in the dining area. Our waiter came over, and launched into a brief history of The Millworks, including its steadfast focus on local and sustainable food, sourced from growers in the Central PA region. Nearly 50% of the materials required in construction were recycled or repurposed. The table we sat around was made from lumber that occupied the building at purchase; the bricks surrounding the fireplace were from an 1830s farmhouse in Perry County; few of the light fixtures were taken from Broad Street Market circa 1920s. Every part of the decor spoke to the sustainability of the building as a whole. Even our water glasses were made from recycled wine bottles!
We ordered the Urban Picnic as an appetizer – a charcuterie board filled with freshly baked bread, locally cured and smoked meats, local grass-fed dairy artisan cheeses and pickled vegetables. My winning combo? Bread, mustard, soppressata, goat cheese and pickled carrots. Sounds odd, tastes delicious.
For dinner, I ordered the House Made Pastrami Sandwich, which wasn’t a far cry from my go-to Reuben. (Not pictured, because it was ugly. Seriously – not photogenic.) Skyler went with the Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich (look at that adorable ramekin of ketchup!), and my boss ordered the Slow Roasted Meatloaf. Everything looked/tasted uhhhhmazing.
And because no dinner is complete without dessert, we ordered two for the table: Peach Cobbler (my choice because, duh – peaches), and a Vanilla Bean Custard. The perfect end to a well-rounded dinner.
PS: Quick nod to The Millworks’ own beer offerings… I couldn’t keep my hands off of the Farmhouse IPA Skyler ordered! Delish.
Yesterday, after a long two weeks enjoying the beautiful landscapes of Alaska by both land and sea, Skyler’s parents returned home from their vacation. They stopped by our new house for a visit, and they came bearing souvenirs. Knowing how much I love to cook, Tena brought me a can of a can of Alaskan salmon. Deep Sea Alaskan Sockeye Red Salmon, to be exact.
Sockeyes are the second most abundant salmon in Alaska, and are known for their rich flavor and striking red fish. And, as an add perk, they’re perfect for cooking a multitude of ways. Originally, I though salmon cakes. But as the day wore on, I wanted to do something different – something I’ve never had. I wanted to have a little fun. So, I did a little bit of research, found a recipe for inspiration, and picked up a few ingredients at the grocery store. And I was off.
Ingredients: Quinoa / 1 can of salmon, drained / red onion, diced / 1-2 hot pepper / 4 cups of spinach / lemon, halved / olive oil / salt + pepper
Directions: Cook the quinoa according to package directions. Feel free to use any kind you’d like. This quinoa/brown rice blend looked delicious, so that’s what I grabbed. / Heat olive oil in a pan until hot. Then, add red onion and pepper. Again, use what you’d like. I’m a wuss, so I chose a relatively non-spicy pepper, and I only used half an onion. Saute until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. / Then, add in spinach and cook until wilted. / Add onion, pepper and spinach mixture to the quinoa, and toss to combine. / Add salt and pepper to taste. / Spritz with lemon, and enjoy! Hot or cold – the perfect side dish to any meal!
Okay, so it’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but is sure was delicious! Thanks Tena!
When you think about food and beverage pairings, chances are, your mind drifts towards a decadent splattering of charcuterie with a few bottles of reds, whites and maybe a sparkling or two. Wine. You’re probably not thinking about beer.
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I love wine – not just the flavor that dances its way across my tastebuds, but its history, culture, and, yes, what foods best complement those qualities. Most people have a general sense about this, right? Even the most uneducated wine drinker (and that’s totally a judge-free statement) is probably aware that in general, like colors are a safe bet – red wines with red sauces (think: spaghetti and Cabernet Sauvignon) or white wines with white sauces (think: chicken alfredo and Chardonnay).
But pairing food and beer together – although it’s something people have been doing for decades – is relatively new to me. When the opportunity presents itself, I just order my favorite beer (Bell’s Two Hearted, in case you were wondering), regardless of the meal that I’m eating. But I’d never do that with wine – I choose my wines based on what I’m eating. So, when I saw that a local pub was offering a beer and donut pairing (who doesn’t love donuts?), my interest was piqued – I had to go.
As I walked to our table near the back of the restaurant with my friend Kayla, I was eyeing up the servings on the tables of those around us. It was 11 o’clock in the morning; I hadn’t eaten anything yet, and I’d barely finished a single cup of coffee. We immediately ordered two rounds of the pre-selected pairings – one for each of us – and waited what seemed like forever (but was probably only a few minutes) for the beer and donuts to arrive. #SundayFunday
For the tasting, Market Cross Pub paired their Raspberry Wheat with a Vanilla Coconut donut. Both were incredibly sweet when standing alone, but when the two flavors came together to recognize each other, a much more palatable harmony appeared. This sweet/sweet combination has always interested me, especially in wine pairing. Every time, I expect to be overwhelmed by the double-dose of sweet, but instead, the flavors combine in some magical scientific way to eliminate the mouth-numbing sweetness of both parts. Blows my mind.
Next, we paired the Red Ale with a Cinnamon Sugar donut, drizzled with salted caramel. This one took the opposite approach of the first and offered a slightly less sweet donut with a beer that had a little more of a bitter bite to it. But, as you know, opposites do attract, so these paired together nicely.
Then came the Porter paired with a chocolate donut, coated in chocolate icing, topped with raspberry drizzle and hot fudge. The key flavor here was the raspberry. Pairing chocolate with a porter is sort of like a no-brainer, right? The beer already carries notes of coffee and chocolate, but when paired with chocolate, this like vs. like combination simply overlap. But when you add in a dash of bitter or tangy flavoring (like the raspberry), it plays off the sugars in the beer, making it a more complex (and tasty!) pairing. Boom. Science.
Finally, we made our way to the stout, paired with a maple bacon donut. Is there truly anything more welcome on a sleepy Sunday morning than the taste of bacon and a cold beer? So, regardless of the pairing, I knew this would be one I’d love. Mmm, bacon. Stouts, like porters, have an intrinsic coffee/chocolate flavor, and are often silky and creamy to taste. These smooth, cool qualities are opposed by the saltiness of the bacon, and complemented by the creamy maple flavor. Altogether a killer combination.
And altogether, a killer Sunday morning. Yum.
I’ll openly admit it: one of my biggest hesitations about moving back home was the food. More specifically, the lack thereof. I love food, and that’s not an exaggeration. I love the taste, the smell, and mostly, the experiences that come along with a great meal. And, well, I grew up here – it’s an area where people congregate at the local diner or a nearby Applebee’s for a night out. If they want something a little fancy, they drive a few extra miles to the nearest Red Lobster or Olive Garden. This area offers little else besides the stereotypical splattering of uninspired chain restaurants.
At least that’s how it was when I left in the fall of 2008, and I never really bothered to look beyond that or expect much else.
But, now that I actually live here, I’m realizing that over the past 8 years, central Pennsylvania has stepped up its culinary game ever so slightly, and there are some hidden gems nestled somewhere in between the TGI Fridays and Red Robins.
Enter: Char’s Tracy Mansion.
Harrisburg, PA has climbed its way into the level of cool that a city must reach to host a Restaurant Week. While it has not quite developed into the all-out crowd-drawing food fest that cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia offer to its residents, it’s a start.
I shot my mom a quick text, followed by a link to all of the restaurants that were participating in Restaurant Week, she chose the venue and we set a date for a Girls Night. I’ll admit, I had never heard of (or even noticed) Char’s Tracy Mansion, even though it’s the only restaurant in Harrisburg situated on the Susquehanna.
The mansion was built in 1913 as a Tudor Revival home for an industrialist. It was a sprawling 30-room home, equipped with hardwood floors, fireplaces, an iron cage elevator and a coal bin so large it was later used as a dining room. In 1951, it was converted into a osteopathic hospital, and later into mental health facility, before it was finally purchased in 2012 with the intent of turning it into a restaurant.
We were fortunate enough to score a seat on the front porch with our chairs angled forward towards the river. The sun was setting, the air was cool – it was a beautiful night!
The Restaurant Week menu was predetermined; each guest could choose from three options for each of the three courses offered. My mom chose the beef tenderloin roll, served with a side of horseradish cream, as her appetizer. I’m a sucker for a good egg roll, and this one was downright delicious. For her meal, she went with chicken and eggplant parmesan, served on a bed of fettuccini noodles with marinara sauce. The eggplant melted in your mouth and made me realize that I really don’t eat enough of it. Yum. For dessert, she chose the peanut butter pie, made with an Oreo crust and accompanied by a caramel sauce: decadence in its tastiest form.
I, being a creature of habit, chose the spicy shrimp taco as an appetizer. The spice of the seasonings was off-set by the avocado aioli, tomato, greens and pickled red onion – I truly could have eaten 100 more of them. I love tacos. (Heart-eyed emoji.) For my second course, I went with the grilled pork tenderloin, which I’ll award the winner of the night. It was coated in a dry coffee/cocoa rub, and served with Yukon mashed potatoes, braised cabbage, onion and green beans, all atop herbed pork jus. I honestly could have licked the plate clean. For dessert, I chose the apple-cinammon bread pudding drizzled in creme anglais, and enjoyed it very much after I picked out all of the raisins. Ick.
Cheers to you, mama, and thanks for introducing me to this hidden gem!
One week ago, I was dipping my toes into the salty blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, completely immersed in the sound of waves gently slapping against the white, sandy shores. We were on vacation, and we had one mission: complete and utter, melt-into-a-puddle relaxation.
Most days, we lounged around the pool, laying lazily under the shade of the cabana, only emerging into the sunlight to refill our empty glasses. But, as a first-timer in Mexico, I had one requirement: I wanted to go to Tulum.
Tulum (whose name stems from the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall) is an uber-populated resort town just south of Cancun, home to a 13th century, walled Mayan archeological site overlooking the sea. Every photo I’ve ever seen painted this incredible picture of paradise. Of course, I had to go.
We arrived in Tulum nearly an hour after we hopped into a taxi and told our driver vaguely where we wanted to go. She dropped us off at the entrance to the ruins, an area that has been hyper-gentrified and filled with tourists. But the energy was palpable. Spanish songs filled the air, and dancers in costume could be seen near and far (and dangling in the sky). Dozens of shops pushing their commemorative trinkets lined the outer edges, and stray cats darted through the crowds.
We were ravenous; it was past noon and we hadn’t eaten anything all day. My eyes glazed over the Starbucks and Subways and overtly-Americanized restaurants, and settled on a little hole in the wall joint near the back. Up until this point, we had existed on burgers, pizza, sandwiches and Asian cuisine. We were in Mexico, for goodness sake. I was craving some authenticity.
On the most basic level, the fish taco can be reduced to a very simple equation: Fish + Tortilla = Fish Taco. When you consider it in this capacity, there’s no question that people have been eating fish tacos in the coastal areas of Mexico for an awfully long time. It probably goes back thousands of years to when indigenous North American peoples first wrapped their offshore catch into stone-ground-corn tortillas. Today, this humble delicacy typically consists of a lightly battered mild white fish that is deep-fried, then served in a corn tortilla (often two) with shredded cabbage, a thin sour-cream- or mayonnaise-based sauce, a bit of salsa, and a most vital spritz of lime.
Well, my fish tacos didn’t come with that essential sauce or salsa, but my oh my were they delicious. Maybe it’s my bias towards the first authentic Mexican meal I ate in while in — wait for it — Mexico, but it was absolutely, finger-lickingly delectable. And when served with an ice cold mango margarita on a hot and sticky day, there really isn’t anything better. Except for maybe Skyler’s chicken fajitas and Dos Equis.