Friday, February 28, 2014

Apéritif Friday - Baked Brie and The Basil Fling

Today I'm highlighting a really simple appetizer in order to focus on the apéritif side of the Friday equation. I'm telling you, in addition to The Bardstown Sling during Christmastime, this joins the ranks of cocktails you MUST try, unless you have a strong aversion to fresh basil, in which case I don't think we can be friends any longer.

So first things first. When dinner is hours off and your minions are dying a slow, painful death from starvation, whip this sucker up and tell them to join the theater with their dramatics. Gather some brie cheese, some high quality crackers (I used mushroom and truffle flatbreads. Delicious.), about 1/4 cup of slivered almonds and some fancy marmalade or fruit spread. Look for something that is all natural and doesn't contain a bunch of preservatives or added sugar.
Lop off the mold on one side of Le Brie. Be not afraid. Cheesy mold is delightful. Plop it into an oven safe crock or bowl.
Spoon some marmalade on it. You'll see that the ginger in the appetizer is mirrored in the upcoming apéritif. One of my finer thinking moments.
Sprinkle the almonds on top and bake the brie in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese is soft and oozy.
Feed to the animals with crackers so they don't perish.
 But you may want to caution that it's hot.
I love this stuff. It takes the edge off your hungry people but isn't overly heavy. It strikes a good balance between salty and sweet - a combination that I love in an appetizer. If you want to make it even more paleo friendly, serve it with apples or celery or carrot sticks. But I personally don't sweat a good cracker every once in awhile.

On to the star today - the most delicious Apéritif I've had in quite some time. It is stellar.

In mid-February a friend of mine had a craptastic day. And an equally stinky night before the crummy day. Which I find nearly impossible, because she lives in FLORIDA for crying out loud. Even still, I guess bad juju doesn't pardon people who get to bask in sunshine during the worst winter in decades. But I digress.

I paused at this picture on her Facebook page, her caption stating that this drink ROCKS and lifted her spirits. You could say that it had me at basil.
However, I truly am trying to adjust my life, especially what I consume. So I lamented for a pregnant second (bizzaro northwoods term) that I wouldn't/shouldn't/couldn't imbibe on this based on the simple syrup. But...BUT! I remembered seeing in the Against All Grain cookbook by Danielle Walker that she somehow made simple syrup with all natural ingredients. So I pulled it out and got to work.

Seriously stupid simple. Equal parts honey and hot water. Mix. Add some slices of fresh ginger. Or some mint leaves, if that's your thing. These little plastic containers are completely useless, but I finally found a purpose for them. They now hold a couple of variations of simple syrup in our refrigerator. Ideally, you should make this in advance so the ginger has a chance to snuggle up with the honey and water.
Why is my child wiping her eyes in the background? Because she's crying at her father's question.  "Are those Miller's missing testicles in there?!?"
Poor Mill Mill. He misses his manhood.

The other problem I had with The Tower Smash is that I am just not a tequila fan. At all. Perhaps it has something to do with the "LICK IT, SLAM IT, SUCK IT!" days of my youth, or the incredibly offensive aftertaste I seem to be unable to shake when drinking it. So needless to say, when I began gathering the ingredients to make my version of this cocktail, there was no tequila in the house to help me out. So instead, I decided that Jimmy's Russian vodka needed some basil love.
Take 5 -6 basil leaves and muddle them with the juice of a lemon in a marble mortal and pestle, if you have one. If not, don't sweat it. Just muddle them in a bowl with the back of a spoon. The idea is to break down the basil and juice into an intensely green liquid. And don't worry about seeds. They won't hurt a thing, because we're gonna strain the heck out of this sucker.
Obviously a cocktail with a mere 2 oz of liquor will never do in my kitchen, so I amped up the volume, adding about 3-4 oz of vodka to the shaker with the basil-lemon juice concoction and a dash of bitters. I don't like things overly sweet, so I used only one tablespoon of the ginger syrup, and one of the simple syrup. Really though, I think you could just use 2T of ginger syrup and call it a day.

Cut the other lemon in half and put one piece in a cocktail glass. This is optional, but it enhances the color and the taste. I didn't squeeze mine - I just plopped the whole thing in there, cut side down. I added a few ice cubes and after shaking the mixture up with ice in a shaker, I strained it over the glass. You really need to strain the drink with a fine meshed sieve, otherwise little bits of basil will be floating in your drink.
Friends, meet The Basil Fling. It most definitely will be making an appearance at next weekend's winter edition of girls weekend. It's such a peaceful drink. I imagined myself floating on a boat with the sun warming my skin as gentle breezes waft over my body while I slowly sip summer in a glass. Seriously - this cocktail tastes like summer. Or a caprese salad. Or bruschetta. But better. Light, refreshing, herbal citrus goodness in a glass. Such a tranquil, lovely, bright-tasting Apéritif.
Until my family jolts me back to reality. Worst winter ever.
Enjoy this! I promise your senses will LOVE IT!

XOXO,
Jen

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Glossary of Teenager Vernacular

Social Media rocks. Because of it, I stay in closer contact with friends from all walks of life - childhood, first high school, second high school, college, corporate America. I love stalking some of the kids' former summer camp counselors, watching as they blossom in their careers and become engaged to be married as their lives play out in far away countries. Or Mr. Musky's cousin as she travels from southeast Missouri to Alaska by car in February. FEBRUARY, the silly goose. Or his other cousin who wanders aimlessly in Southeast Asia...hi Adam! Check out his blog. He's a phenomenal landscape photographer.

Sometimes, I'll throw a line out and reel someone in completely, like an unsuspecting first timer at next week's girls weekend. Or my roommate from freshman year at University of Illinois, a lovely farm girl from middle America whose name I was privileged to see as the lottery winner to spend a most formidable year with me at the ripe old age of eighteen.

Sarah and I hit it off immediately. We were enough alike to live together effortlessly, for the most part. If anything, I probably bugged her most with my messy piles and constantly visiting boyfriend, but she never complained or bothered me once. Not ever. How did I get so lucky? Although we took separate paths in the sea of 30,000 undergraduates after that first year, Mr. Musky and I did attend her wedding after college and we managed to marginally keep in touch after that. We both became pregnant around the same time, and got together to lay our baby girls on the floor side-by-side when they were just weeks old. After that, life took over and our updates were reduced to Christmas cards and the occasional visit every seven years or so.

We recently reconnected for lunch. Have you ever tried to squeeze in ten years of updates in 1.5 hours? We talked non stop. The waitress interrupted us at least eight times before we even looked at our menus to order. We blathered on about everything, but naturally settled in on the kids, focusing on our eldest offspring, because as we realized, the two are very alike in many ways. We talked about their dallying in relationships, which for the record is highly entertaining to see play out. I feel like I have a front row seat at the dramatic coming-of-age production called My Daughter's Life, and if you're willing to simply watch and gently guide while biting a crater in your lower lip, it's the best form of entertainment out there.

As we were chatting, I mentioned that my daughter is "talking" to a boy.

"Yes! So is mine! OK. Please help. What is talking?"

"Oh - you guys use that word too in Yorkville?"

"Yes! Do you know what it means?"

"For sure. I've got this one."

So I launched into a five minute explanation of what exactly it means for two teenagers to be "talking" to one another. Seems to be fairly self explanatory, doesn't it? Oh no. No, no, no my young padwans. For those of you with up-and-coming teenagers, consider this a Jedi Master public service announcement today. I join you in your effort to translate their language, and given that I have some willing participants to educate this poor old mom, I aim to share my knowledge so you too can effectively communicate with your apprentices. Also known as the monkeys who take over your pantry, leaving nothing but a trail of crumbs along your unwashed floor.

Let's start with "talking." We're riding in the car, Kahley and me, and I ask her how Elizabeth* is doing.

"She's pretty good. She's talking to Harry.*"

"Oh. Cool. You mean right now on the phone?"

"No."

"Oh - right. You mean they are texting now."

"Well, maybe. I don't know. But they're definitely talking."

"Are they getting together after school today?"

"I doubt it. But they might hang out on the weekend."

"Well then how do you know they're talking?" My frustration level rises.

"Because Elizabeth told me they are! It's kind of a big deal, Mom. She's had a thing for him like, forever."

"Don't say like." I loathe that word when used incorrectly, a mere 10,000,000 times per day by every teenaged girl on the face of the earth. I bust my kids' butts every time they use it out of context.

"You know what I mean. They kinda like each other, so they're talking."

"So you mean they're going out."

Giant sigh of exasperation, bordering on exaggeration. "Moham. No. They are not going out. They are talking. You know...they are getting to know one another."

"So is this an exclusive thing? Are they exclusively talking? Can they "talk" to other people?"

"Well sure they can talk to other people, but they're not "Talking" to anyone else. Now do you get it?"

* The names are altered to protect the innocent. And my daughter's reputation. And the reputations of Elizabeth and Harry, especially if their parents don't know they are talking.

I can assure you, friends, that I most definitely did not get it. But I think I do now. The deal with talking teenagers is this: Girl meets boy, girl decides she likes boy...enough to pursue a toe-dip into the relationship pool. They talk, 98% via text, the other 2% very awkwardly at school. Never ever on the phone. This is considered a "getting to know you" phase, but definitely not a dating phase, as teenagers younger than 16 don't car date yet, at least in my house. It may, however, involve a date in the sense of "Hanging Out," which is one of Mr. Musky's favorite terms these days.

"Whaddya mean? You gonna go to his house and hang from a bar like an ape or somethin'?"

The result: sheer aggravation, a huff, and an eye roll to the heavens as she turns on her heel and demands an answer. Can she can hang out with the guy she's talking with or not this weekend?

Oh - and this: Talking may definitely involve kissing. "Because you see Mom, you wanna try the milk before you buy it."

Now listen. My daughter doesn't drink milk. Nor does she buy it. But I can deduce from this that she's definitely kissed a boy. Or several. Which I'm totally fine with. Kiss away and try that milk, young Anakin.

Over the past several years, there are other words I've heard that caused me to pause and demand an explanation. Here's your Glossary of Teenager Vernacular, as translated by the children with whom I co-habitate. Some border on the verge of vulgarity, but we're pretty open and honest around here. I'd rather know than not. Also realize that we live in a rather diverse community, so some of these may not apply to high schools similar to the ones where I grew up - 99.999% Caucasian and farmers or hunters.

Talking - Verb. When two people of the opposite sex are interested in one another and talk via text to determine if they should enter a full blown, exclusive relationship. Exclusivity may be established when talking to an individual (e.g. we are not talking with anyone else) but is not required. Kissing is allowed. But the two are definitely not "going out" (code for the older generation: going steady) or dating.
Hang Out - when two or more teenagers gather together at someone's house to spend time together on a Friday or Saturday night. Not hanging from a bar, as Mr. Musky thinks every time he hears this phrase.
Ratchet - adjective to describe a ratty, trashy, less than desirable girl. If you're willing to foray into the urban dictionary, here's a more descriptive definition.
Homie Hopper - a girl who dates a group of guys who are all friends, one after another.
Gettin' it in - phrase to describe...It. Pretty self explanatory.
Wife her up - Seems to me a bit early for kiddies (yes! because that's what they are!) to be looking for good spouse material, but at least the thought exists? Eeewwww.
#MCM - Many of you probably already know this, but since I'm always a bit late to the party, I just found out last week. Man Crush Monday. As in, girls post pics of their man crushes on Mondays. Kinda like TBT, or Throw Back Thursday, when people post pictures of themselves from eons ago. For teenagers, they post pictures from last week.
Thirsty - (one of my personal favorites) - A word to describe a state in which an individual seeks the affection of another. In a word, horny. But it sounds so much better than the original.

I love messing with my kids, and after learning the meaning of Thirsty, I brought crimson to my daughter's cheeks one night. She was watching TV with a girlfriend, and we were having an Olympic Opening Ceremony party in the basement with some friends. Jimmy, from across the street, brought a present and we all imbibed.
Yum....Soviet Union, er, I mean, Russian Vodka. Hammer and Sickle. What I expected to be harsher than a jagged knife based on principle alone ended up being smooth, cool and tasty all the way down. And I normally hate shots! Anyway...during a brief intermission I ran upstairs to get something out of the kitchen, and Kahley asked me how it was going.

"Awesome!" I answered. Eyeballing her friend, who I happen to know pretty well and enjoy messing with as well, I continued. "I mean, I'm getting THIRS-TY!" And with a wink and a thrust of my well-endowed hip, I trounced off back to the basement, to squeals from the girls, her friend in disbelief? More like horror. "Your mom DID NOT JUST SAY THAT!"

See...gaining this knowledge can backfire on the children, leaving them disgusted and wanting us to crawl under a shell like a hermit crab.

Another good one - on Valentine's Day, Mr. Musky gave me a bottle of body lotion that has the word pheromone on it. I think he bought me that brand simply to say the following in front of the unsuspecting kids: "Mmmmm. Mom's pheromones make me thirsty!" Grodded out, they both promptly left the room, their gag refluxes hard at work.

I'm curious. Do any of you have teenager sayings that I've missed? I'd love to hear them!

XOXO,
Jen

Friday, February 21, 2014

Apéritif Friday - A Date

Mornings border on a sacrilegious routine around here. Wake up, pull on warm, comfy clothes, pad my way downstairs, take a vitamin, pour a cup of coffee. Maybe let the dog out. Sit on the sofa in the living room. Wait for Mr. Musky to join me.

He always does.

Read email, the weather report, news headlines, Facebook. Sip coffee.

Talk to husband.

We rarely vary from this routine. The occasional request to be driven to school or the bus stop may throw a momentary glitch into things, but we immediately settle back in for at least 1/2 hour to spend some time together before starting our day. And while this may sound impossible to some, I assure you it is not. We've been doing this for years...even when I had to rush off to a corporate desk job. Yes, some days we must forego our little ritual, but more often than not we make it a priority to start our day off together.

Earlier this week, as I attempted to warm my hands around a thick mug filled with coffee, lounging in flannel pjs topped off with a gnarly bedheaded hairdo, my lovely husband asked me out on a date.

"Will you join me for lunch Thursday to watch the USA Women take on Canada?"

Guys who might just happen to read this nonsense occasionally, please tune in. We want to be asked out on a date. Even after we've birthed two children and have wrinkles where we shouldn't mention. Just pretend we are still teenagers once in awhile and ask us out properly. It makes us feel giddy.

Obviously I jumped at the offer. Yesterday we went to a little Italian restaurant called Capri Sogno in downtown Plainfield. We love it there. Deep, dark mahogany interior with classic Italian music piped in and a simple but delicious and fresh menu.

I started off with the pineapple infused martini. I'm a freaking sucker for those giant vessels of vodka sitting on the bar with floating chunks of O'ahu. As long a there's no Smirnoff in there, I'm in. And I love it straight up.

He, of course, opted for a predictable Sapphire with water on the rocks. And a lemon twist, because he's really fancy.

We ordered the baked clams and the calamari Capri. Clearly neither of these are Paleo. But when your women's national hockey team is taking on those pesky (code: freaking diligent, talented and deserved of the gold medal) Canadiens, then indulgence is permissible. We even ate warm, crusty bread fresh from the oven dipped in the reserved sauce on the appetizers. Divine goodness on a plate. We both commented that if we're going to indulge, it's going to be on really awesome stuff.
There is something hopelessly romantic about bellying up to a cool, marble-topped bar wearing nicer-than-normal clothes at noon on a Thursday afternoon. It feels very old school. So much so, that I ordered a bottle of wine to sip while we watched the women in a valiant effort against their arch rivals.

I also watched him. The man I met at 18 years old, and married at 22. Had our first child with at 25, our second at 27. I giggled as he ran out to the truck to get some cheaters in order to read the menu. And commented on how hot he is with them on. For real. He still makes my heart go pitter patter.

I genuinely speak here. And yes...there have been times when I've not liked him so well. But for 99.99% of the time, I love him with every fiber of my being, and not just because he still asks me out on dates.

Because he looks around the restaurant in approval, acknowledging it's just as he likes it. With nobody near him.

Because as we slopped up the buttery goodness from the baked clams, he identified the taste as reminiscent of caramel. And he was spot on with his assessment of the ingredients in that dish.

Because during intermission, he said he wasn't going back to the office and said he wanted to make deep dish pizza that night for the kids.

Because after our date, we stopped at Meyer, and he picked up a package of basil, blindly threw it over his shoulder, and it landed in the grocery cart.

Because as I write this, he whistles for me to come join him while he makes dinner.

He makes me laugh, just by being him.

The kids knew we dated yesterday. While we all gathered around the pizza-making maestro, I advised  my son to ask his 41 year old wife out to lunch on a Thursday someday.

You're welcome, future daughter-in-law.

XOXO,
Jen

Friday, February 14, 2014

Apéritif Friday Gone Bad, followed by Redemption Pie

Despite my promise to show great things after the last post, I'm afraid we had a bomb of a time a couple of Fridays ago. But just like Shawn White, we can't always be winners. And we can't all have blow-it-outta-the-park Apéritif Friday creations. Sometimes, we lose.

I lost big a few weeks ago.

My plan was to showcase a fantastic molecular-designed cocktail with brilliant blue bubbles gracing a martini glass of gin and tonic. I even broke out the fancy (code: more expensive) Sapphire that my sister-in-law gave to Mr. Musky for Christmas. I enticed the kids with a chemistry experiment to lure them into our graces for the evening and spend some quality time together. One kid bought in immediately,
 channeled his lab skills,
and got to work on molecularizing. Despite our efforts though, my highbrow Apéritif efforts resulted in a miserable fail.
I don't know if I had bad tonic or my blue curaco wasn't blue enough, but while the little blue bubbles did form, they were very light in color and were visually underwhelming. Mr. Musky wouldn't let me drop a few into his cocktail glass as he is a purist and only mixes his gin with tap water. It's a special night if he adds a lemon twist. I, on the other hand, went for it and plopped them in. It didn't really affect the taste of the cocktail, but it also didn't do much for me visually. I was hoping for azure colored orbs to dance around my glass, but perhaps my expectations were too high.

We had a surly teenager in our midst who was present, except not really. You parents of teenagers know exactly what I mean. An inexplicable mood hits, and you're glad they are there with you but also wish that a friend would phone to swoop them up into activities much more entertaining and juvenile age-relevant. But alas, she found herself stuck with the terribly boring parents and baby brother for the evening, unwilling to engage in molecular cocktail crafting.

Until...something caught her eye.
And she dove in,
channeling the inner child who adored messy games all those years during Confirmation Mayhems.
This girl would have baked mud pies all the live long day if she had grown up somewhere with an abundance water and dirt available. Instead, she called upon her inner rugrat with cocktail molecules gone wrong.
Our plan that night was to nosh on appetizers: smoked salmon, cheese, GF crackers and hard boiled eggs with bacon. I was going to show you how to make the perfect hard boiled egg, something that I rocked on New Year's Day, thanks to this informative post. 
Except the meal plan bombed on me. The salmon was rotten. There's nothing worse to ruin the aroma in a kitchen and an appetite for snacking. I promptly threw it away.

The eggs were too fresh, and didn't properly peel. I ended up throwing a couple out. They looked so terrible I didn't even take pictures of the sloppily finished product. Probably because they were devoured in minutes as the peanut gallery was restless. And starving.

The others determined they were still hungry, so they popped some Pizza Rolls into the oven and called it dinner. We played a rousing game of Pictionary, then some game on the iPhone that resembles charades, then the actual traditional game of charades. All terribly exciting for a painfully boring Friday night in January.

The next day dawned with six inches of fresh snow. While I love me some snow up North, it's a colossal pain in the arse in Chicago. Too many cars, too many idiotic drivers, it messes up Mr. Musky's business, which results in a crabby husband, ultimately resulting in a crabby me. We ended up canceling dinner plans with some friends that night, and cabin fever officially invaded my psyche and inspired me to whip up some comfort food. I wanted something reminiscent of Shepard's Pie...
...and I desperately needed to redeem myself in the kitchen to account for such an epic, miserable failure the night before. I realized I was onto something awesome midway through preparing this meal, so I don't have as many pictures as I usually take. But if you are looking for a hearty, casserole-like vat of comfort-food, try this dish. It was awesome, and Paleo in every way. Here's what you do to make what I'm calling...

...wait for it...

...Redemption Pie. Garsh I'm such a dork. Gather the ingredients:

6 pieces of bacon, cooked until crispy, with 2 tbsp of drippings reserved in the pan
1lb Grass Fed Ground Beef
1lb Ground Bison
1 large onion, diced
4 carrots, diced
4 celery ribs, diced
2 cups curly kale, chopped
1/2 jalapeño, diced
1 cup green beans, steamed and chopped
3-4 Tbsp Coconut Aminos (or worchestershire if you don't have coconut aminos)
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped finely
4oz tomato paste
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp chopped rosemary, thyme, and parsley
2 tsp allspice
2 cups gruyere cheese, grated (you may omit this ingredient if you're off dairy, but it added to the richness of the dish)
2 heads cauliflower, steamed
4 tbsp butter or ghee
4 tbsp heavy cream or coconut milk
2 tsp truffle oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Brown the ground meats in the reserved bacon fat until cooked through and crumbly. Add the vegetables and cook on med-low until softened. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer until reduced. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Add the garlic, Coconut Aminos, allspice and herbs. Stir to combine, and add salt and pepper to taste.

While the meat mixture simmers, steam the cauliflower until soft. Drain it, dump it into the bowl of a food processor, and puree. Add the butter or ghee, cream or coconut milk, salt and pepper to taste, and truffle oil and blend to incorporate. Give it a taste and roll your eyes in the back of your head.

Spray a 9x13 inch baking dish with nonstick spray - I love coconut spray. I used a deep dish pie plate because I only had one head of cauliflower (and therefore used half the butter, heavy cream and oil), so I also only used about half of the meat mixture. Spread the meat in the dish, top with the grated cheese, chop the bacon and layer it on the cheese, then frost the top with the mashed cauliflower. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes, then broil to slightly brown the top. Keep an eye on it - it'll burn quickly.

Our Apéritif on redemption night?
A favorite wine. Something guaranteed to taste good with the meal, and a cocktail I couldn't screw up.
I slowed down and truly savored this meal. So did Mr. Musky. The flavors were complex, fully integrated, and the overall taste reminded me of my Luscious Lasagna, but this is waaaaay healthier. The richness of the cheese and truffle oil, not to mention the bacon, put this over the top. We loved the mashed cauliflower versus the traditional mashed potatoes that adorn Shepard's Pie, as it was lighter in texture and didn't lay like a rock in the gut. This, my friends, is on the new rotation in the Czupek household. It's stellar.

Jake thought so too. When I came upstairs later to clean up, the entire pie pan was gone. All of it. Homeboy went to town!

Tonight we'll be cooking up some surf and turf decadence for my sweets, and I'm close to perfecting a new Apéritif that I can't wait to share with you, inspired by a friend in Florida. Maybe we'll even get crazy and eat in the dining room while we chat each other up about the California Dreamin' we've all been doing.
Spring Break can't come soon enough. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.

XOXO,
Jen