The Turkey Tango: What Wine Is Best to Serve on Thanksgiving?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With Thanksgiving only a day away, you’re probably finalizing your menu and are picking up the last few items for your meal. Among the items on your list may be picking up beverages for your guests. So the question is what wines pair with a meal with so many different complex tastes?

This can get particularly tricky if you’re entertaining a large group that may have a variety of preferences and tastes. While the answers to this debate range far and wide, but there are a couple points that most winos seem to be in agreement on – keep it simple and offer a variety of options if you’re expecting a crowd.

From spicy pumpkin pie to rich, creamy mashed potatoes and tart cranberries, leave the meal’s bold flavors to the food that you’re serving. By sticking to a non-oaky wine that’s light-bodied and well-balanced, you’ll avoid picking a wine that could clash or compete. Keeping it on the lighter side is also helpful since guests will likely be enjoying large portions and won’t want a heavy wine contributing to their after-meal fullness.

Some wine experts say that Thanksgiving may be the most complex
meal to make wine selections for.
Photo Source: Background-Wallpaper.com

If you’re expecting a group, plan to offer some red and white choices. For the white, steer clear of oaky, rich Chardonnays and opt for a smooth Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling if you’d like something a bit sweeter. Cava or champagne can also be a great option I’d highly recommend because it will almost always complement the food you’re serving and it’s a nice light alternative that people often overlook. If red if your preference, a fruity Pinot Noir, a light Zinfadel or a Beaujolais come highly recommended along with Chianti and some blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, although be of varieties that are oaky or have too high of an alcohol content.

Or, if your guests prefer beer with their Thanksgiving feast, try amber ale, a lager like Oktoberfest or brown or golden ale with traditional turkey. Spiced ale or a winter lager are also great pairs with pumpkin pie!

Above all, let the number of guests, budget and preferences guide your picks and enjoy the holiday with friends and family!

Tastes of Turkey Day

Sunday, November 22, 2009

If your family is anything like mine, Thanksgiving is a holiday that we look forward to 364 days of the year. It’s a time for feasting on family favorites and carrying out yearly traditions while also making new ones. For my family, we enjoy sipping on mimosas and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade together while the savory smells of roasting turkey, sage and stuffing cause our stomachs to rumble in anticipation. I am the appointed turkey stuffer of the household and am looking forward to trying a new stuffing this year.

Adapted by The Charlotte Observer based on a recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook, an almost legendary mantra of gourmet cooking for my family, this year’s stuffing is called Cornbread-Sausage Dressing With Apples. A mix of three types of bread, tart apple, onion, sausage, pecans and spices, this recipe yields 10 to 12 servings or enough to stuff a 20-pound turkey.

Egg and chicken broth will give this stuffing a moist, rich flavor.
Photo Source: Charlotte Observer

As for the turkey, the meal’s main attraction, the possibilities for infusing flavor are endless from basting to brining and grilling or deep-frying for those seeking a twist on a traditional bird.

Brining
Think of brining as a style of marinating -- soak your turkey for 12 to 24 hours before roasting to lock in flavor. Try out Spice Hunter’s Turkey Brine, a mix of sea salt, brown sugar, dried cranberries and apples, orange zest, black peppercorns, thyme, rosemary and age. Order online or find at your local specialty grocer.

Grilling
Make your meal all-American by grilling your turkey this Thanksgiving. Pre-soak it in a brine or prepare a rub to add some extra taste to your turkey. Check out these grilling tips and recipes by Saveur for more information.

Tired of the same type of Thanksgiving turkey? Give in to the grill.
Photo Source: Saveur

Deep-Fried
For a fast-track turkey taking only 45 minutes to cook a 12-pound bird, try deep-frying. Add some Cajun seasoning for some extra spice if your Turkey Day guests won’t mind the extra oomph.

Check out some more fun Thanksgiving Day recipes that will make your guests’ mouths water:

This pieced apart pie is the combination of crumbly pecan and coconut oatmeal, spiced pumpkin custard and tastes of caramel and cinnamon.

Try this new taken on pumpkin pie for a pretty, portion perfect dessert.
Photo Source: Bonbini

Sweet Potato Souffle
Can’t pick between marshmallows or pecans? Why not use both in this tasty Sweet Potato Souffle.

Baked Mashed Potato Cake
Make your mashed potatoes more of a gratin with this Italian recipe for Baked Mashed Potato Cake.

Bread crumbs, provolone and bits of salami gives this
potato dish great gratin-like flavor.
Photo Source: Cheese and Pears

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake
Try this moist and tart cranberry cake as a sweet beginning or ending to Thanksgiving celebrations.

This sweet dish is festive in flavor and in color.
Photo Source: My Recipes

Best Holiday Baking Tools

Saturday, November 7, 2009

With holiday and family gatherings just around the corner, baking for big groups may be on the horizon for you. Check out these four fun and festive kitchen tools that will help you wow your guests.

These cute individual-sized pie molds come in pretty fall shapes of apples and pumpkins. Just arrange refrigerated pie crust in the mold, add the filling of your choice and voila – you’ve got a festive and fancy looking sweet treat. Each set comes with two for less than 10 dollars. Tip: try freezing the molds for 20 to 30 minutes before using for best results.

These beautiful apple and pumpkin-shaped "pocket pies" are
sweet and easy-to-make treats.
Photo Source: Williams-Sonoma

Cooking breakfast for a large group? This Williams-Sonoma waffled pancake pan makes it easy for you to cook up to seven pancakes at once so that you can get a hungry group fed quickly. For mess-free measuring, invest in a “pancake pen” batter bottle.

Make breakfast for a big group with these
waffled pancake pan.
Photo Source: Williams-Sonoma

These colorful fall pie cutters are cute accessories to dress up any pumpkin pie with fun shapes like leaves and acorns. Add a few cut pieces of pie dough for a special touch or go all out for a fun leaf-topped creation.

These little leaf and acorn-shaped pie crust cutters
can add a personalized touch to a tasty pumpkin pie.
Photo Source: Williams-Sonoma

This acorn cakelet pan is perfect for baking fun festive fall bite-sized acorn-shaped breads or cakes. If you’re partial to pumpkins instead, check out the pumpkin patch pan, which also offers perfect presentation of fall baked goodies.


Create acorn cakelets made of cornbread, muffin mix
or any other bread or cake mix you desire.
Photo Source: Williams-Sonoma

Falling in Love with Fall Food Part II

Sunday, September 20, 2009

This second chapter in a celebration of fall food includes recipes for several seasonal fruits that make a sweet addition to any dish. Apples, figs, pears and pomegranates are just a few favorites that offered inspiration for the following collection of favorite fall recipes.

Apples

Nothing tastes more like fall than Apple Brown Betty, a variation of apple crisp that is a blend of tart apples, bread crumbs and a sugary sweet brown sugar sauce. Top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a really decadent dessert.

Instead of using rolled oats like traditional apple crisp dishes, this Apple Brown Betty
incorporates fresh bread crumbs in the mix.
Photo Source: Saveur

Another recipe that offers a taste of fall is this Epicurious version of Apple Butter, a delicious spread that's great when paired with a crusty piece of bread or as a flavorful sandwich filler that will break the monotony of other brown bag lunch options.

If you're looking for a cocktail with a fall twist, try Honeycrisp Apple Sangria or Spiked Apple Cider.

Figs

Figs are a fall delicacy with their sweet honeyed taste and soft texture. They're a great ingredient to dress up a dish and give it a more gourmet feel. Like many fall fruits, figs are a favorite for baked goods, desserts, and pastries. If you're looking to get your fig fix from baking, then try out Autumn Muffins, which also include apples, cranberries and hazelnuts along with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Or, if you're looking for a fun appetizer for a wine and cheese party, then your guests will be impressed by Figs and Toasted Almonds Brie, an appetizer that's quick and easy to make, but is an elegant alternative to a typical cheese tray.

If you'd like to make dinner and include figs, then try out this recipe for Homemade Focaccia Bread with Figs and Goat Cheese, an Italian-inspired dish that includes fresh figs, pine nuts and goat cheese atop a doughy pillow of fresh focaccia bread. To save time on this recipe, simply use a boxed version of focaccia bread as the base instead of a homemade rendition.

Fig pizza, anyone?
Photo Source: Local Lemons
Pears

Another fruit of fall harvest, pears are tasty when paired with a salty ingredient like cheese. This Fall Pear Galette is a pretty dessert that plays on these flavor pairings, with sharp cheddar cheese and Bartlett or D'Anjou pears surrounded by a ring of pie crust, a fun alternative to the traditional latticed pie.

This Fall Pear Galette is a rustic fall dish with that combines the
sweet flavor of pears with sharp cheddar atop a pie crust.
Photo Source: MyRecipes

Roquefort Pear Salad is another recipe that gets it's flavor from the unlikely ying and yang pairing of pear and cheese, but this time Roquefort, a pungent, creamy, crumbly bleu cheese is used. With other flavorful ingredients like pecans, avocado and green onion, this salad offers a healthy choice for a fall lunch or dinner.

Pomegranate

With a powerful punch of sweet and tart flavor, pomegranates are a fun fall fruit to incorporate in your cooking. While pomegranates have become popular in recent years in the US, they're an ingredient that's been used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine for centuries. High in antioxidants and Vitamin C, pomegranates are offer a variety of health benefits.

Feeling adventurous in the kitchen? Try out POM Tiramisu for a sweet,
tart addition to traditional tiramisu.
Photo Source: POM Wonderful

If you've never cooked with pomegranates before, check out this About guide "All About Pomegranates." With a step-by-step guide to seeding pomegranates, as well as a video and information on how to select and store the fruit, you'll be a pomegranate connoisseur before you know it!

While Mexican Salad with Pomegranate-Lime Dressing derives pomegranate flavor from pomegranate juice, POM Tiramisu and Pomegranate and Lemon Herb Tilapia both incorporate the arils, or the fleshy seeds, as key ingredients. For more pomegranate recipes, visit the site of the maker of POM juice, which includes a variety of pomegranate-inspired dishes.

Falling in Love with Fall Food Part I

Monday, September 14, 2009

While the leaves haven't started changing colors yet, and the temperature is still 86 degrees in Charlotte, fall still seems to be in the air. School is in session, football season has kicked off and weekend camping trips are replacing days spent by the poolside. Along with the new smells and sights of fall comes a slew of new seasonal ingredients. Among favorite fall veggies now in season are pumpkin, squash, eggplant and sweet potatoes.

Pumpkin

Possibly my most favorite pumpkin recipe of all times is this Pumpkin Cake recipe that I've been making for years. The moist and delicious cake is a blend of yellow cake mix, canned pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice which includes one secret ingredient - butterscotch pudding. Serve warm with Cool Whip for an indulgent fall-inspired treat.

One oven-baked breakfast dish that I sampled for the first time last weekend is the Pumpkin-Cinnamon Streusel Buns, a delicious, time-consuming concoction that's well worth the effort to make.

This twist on traditional cinnamon buns is festive and flavorful.
Photo Source: My Recipes

Finally, if you're looking to break out of the realm of pumpkin baked goods, then sample this highly-recommended recipe for Pumpkin and Shrimp Bisque. A creamy blend of salty, rich flavors with notes of lemon, pepper and sage. A whopping 91 percent of those who tried this recipe said that it's a keeper and that they'd make it again.

Squash

In addition to pumpkin, many other squash varieties are in season during the fall and winter months including butternut squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash, which are several of my favorites. If you're looking to serve a yummy squash dish, then I'd recommend Butternut Squash Soup with Sage and Parmesan Croutons. The rich, creamy soup is well-paired with the parmesan croutons. A dish that's sure to warm you up on a cool fall day, butternut squash soup keeps well and makes for a nice alternative to a brown bag lunch. Check out this Cooking Light article for tips on how to peel and cut butternut squash if you've never done so before. It can be a bit tricky, and if you think it may be too much of a hassle, your local Harris Teeter or another upscale grocery chain may have fresh and frozen pre-cut butternut squash.

When I stumbled on this Winter Panzanella recipe reviewed by Smitten Kitchen, I couldn't contain my excitement. Having recently made a summer version with fresh tastes of basil, tomato and chunks of yummy sourdough bread, I was thrilled to find a version with seasonal roasted vegetables, including squash.

Winter Panzanella incorporates tasty fall and winter veggies
for a fresh and colorful dish.
Photo Source: Smitten Kitchen

Eggplant

An avid eggplant lover, I can't get enough of this funky fall veggie. The key to this somewhat high-maintenance ingredient is in preparation. In some cases you may need to sweat the eggplant by placing peeled and cut slices on a plate and coating them in a generous layer of salt, which will bring out the bitter flavors. The process takes about 30 minutes, and you'll know when it's done because the slices will feel more flexible, bending easily to the touch. Check the eggplant recipe you're using to see if you need to go through this preparation step or if you can skip it.

My all-time favorite eggplant recipe is eggplant parmesan. While I've made it by sweating it and then baking it in a layered casserole dish, I've found that dipping the slices of eggplant first really makes for a much tastier (and much more unhealthy) final product. Try out this version for a hearty, meat-free layered dish. This is another one of those recipes where time equals taste, but if you need a quick eggplant parmesan fix (which I admittedly do at times), pick up some frozen, pre-breaded eggplant slices at your local Trader Joe's.

Other awesome tried-and-true eggplant recipes include Penne with Sausage, Eggplant, and Feta and Stuffed Eggplant, both of which are Cooking Light recipes and healthier options for flavorful fall dishes that will leave you feeling full. And, if you're an eggplant addict like me, then be sure to check out aubergines.org, a fun purple-themed site filled with hundreds of eggplant recipes.

This Cooking Light Stuffed Eggplant recipe received 5-stars from
reviewers and is a tried-and-true dish that plates pretty.
Photo Source: My Recipes

Sweet Potato

The final fall veggie that I'm spotlighting is the sweet potato - another rich, colorful ingredient that offers opportunity that extends beyond traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato casseroles and baked sweet potatoes.

To add some flavor and spice to sweet potato, try out Chipolte Sweet Potatoes or Roasted Spiced Sweet Potato Wedges, each of which draws flavor from a blend of spicy herbs. Finally, if you're looking for something on the sweeter side or for a dish that makes for great finger food, try the Harvest Sweet Potato Pecan Tarts. This dish was a big hit at the engagement party last fall. Party goers couldn't resist these sweet miniature sweet potato and pecan pie treats!

Opt for some spice instead of sugar with your sweet potatoes this fall.
Photo Source: Smitten Kitchen

Check back soon for more fall recipes! Part II will pull inspiration from recipes with fall fruits including apples, figs, pomegranates and pears.

The Hype about Skype

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

With a recent Oprah endorsement, Skype has seen user ship jump sky-high in just a few short months. Despite being in operation since 2002, the service, which is now owned by eBay, has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. So with all of this hype about Skype, you may begin to wonder – what’s the big deal?

Skype, which rhymes with type, is an Internet-based communication service that allows users to call each other from any place in the world through their computers for free. You can even make calls through your computers to cell phones and landlines for a small fee.

So what’s the catch? Well, there isn’t one really. You have to have Internet service in order to use Skype, and both users must have downloaded the program for your call to go through. Sometimes call quality is not crystal clear and there can be an echo or fading in and out, but with international phone rates being as much as $5 per minute, you can hardly complain about a service that offers the same for free.

This Skype screenshot shows a live video feed via web cam.
The computer-to-computer service is free worldwide.
Photo Source: Skype

In addition to being able to call users via Skype, you can also send instant messages, pictures and videos to users on your Skype buddy list, which allows you to see when they’re online and available. Call forwarding and voicemail are other features that are useful for travelers, students studying abroad and anyone who has a computer and doesn’t want to pay long-distance calling fees.

If you plan to Skype friends and family at home while you’re traveling, download the software to test it out before you leave. Test call each of your contacts to work out any bugs. For example, your computer has to have a microphone in order to use Skype, so while you can talk into the speaker on newer laptops, this may not be the case for PCs and older laptops. Working out these details in advance is the best way to prevent communication barriers once you’re on the road.

You'll never know when Skype will come in handy during your travels! Kris and I announced our engagement to our families and friends through Skype, which was a nice alternative to email to actually be able to share the night's events and excitement in realtime. Happy Skyping!

Digital Treasure Maps

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Long gone are the days when tourists relied solely on large printed foldout maps. These 2D tools may once have been the standard for adventure seekers, but today’s tech-savvy travelers have a variety of 21st century aids at their fingertips thanks to the Internet and ever-advancing mobile and satellite technology.

One tool that I have found to be especially helpful in planning travel excursions, particularly when you may not speak the native language of the locality, is the My Maps function on Google Maps (Note: you must create a Google account to use My Maps). After you’ve located the city you plan to travel to, it’s easy to create placemarkers for attractions, parks, restaurants and nightlife places that you’d like to visit.

Google Maps is a great tool to plan out your travel itinerary.

Photo Source: Google Maps


Travel guides, online travel communities and publications are just a few possible information sources available, many of which include pictures along with user ratings and reviews. It’s better to add more than less to your map since you never know when your travel itinerary might change based on weather or a whole host of other factors.


To create a placemarker, search for an attraction by name and/or address, and once Google Maps points to this attraction on the map, it will show you where you can add an upside teardrop marker. It may be helpful to add a description remind yourself of why you selected this attraction for your map. A simple phrase like “Best coffee in Barcelona” or “Great picnic place” will do.


If you have a type A personality like me, you may even want to create a detailed, mapped out itinerary that sets out the path or order in which you plan to visit attractions. You can do this by drawing a line to connect placemarkers.


When you’re creating your map, remember that you can also search for other public maps Google members have created by browsing the directory. The Top 50 Places to See Celebrities in NYC Map and the Best Seattle Photography Locations Map are two popular public maps that could be a great source of information for travelers planning to visit those cities. Be sure to mark any maps that you make public so that others can benefit from any itineraries you create!


Another great resource to tap into is Gridskipper, an international travel blog dedicated to themed plots dedicated to a variety of topics ranging from Sing Your Heart Out in San Francisco to Cupcake Consumption in London or even Eating with the Obamas in DC.


This Gridskipper map features cupcake shops and bakeries across London.

Photo Source: Gridskipper


If you have a PDA, discuss temporary international plans with your service provider that will enable you to access the Internet abroad for easy navigation with the maps you or others have created. If not, print the maps out before you leave. Be sure to pay special attention to the zoom level so that important street names are clearly labeled, otherwise your map won’t be much help. Happy navigating!

Recipe Spotlight: Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It's not often that I'm incredibly excited or inspired by boxed recipes, but Krusteaz's Lemon Bars are a baked treat that's been on my list of favorites for some time. Last weekend I tested out a recipe on the back of the box on a whim and was thrilled with the results. The Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars were quick and easy to make, but most importantly, they ended up being a big hit! They made for a nice summer dessert that was a refreshing and lighter tasting alternative to rich cookies or cake. The lemon bars can be served hot straight from the oven or cold as you would serve cheesecake. Enjoy!

These lemon cheesecake bars are an explosion of tastes with a tart
citrus filling and a creamy, cool layer of cheesecake
atop a sweet, crumbly crust.
Photo Source: Krusteaz

Amazing Lemon Cheesecake Bars

Ingredients
1 package Krusteaz Lemon Bar Mix
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup water

Directions
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 8x8x2-inch pan. Press full pouch of complete crust firmly into bottom of pan. Bake for eight minutes. Place cream cheese and sugar in medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, mix on low speed until smooth. Add one egg and vanilla. Continue to mix on low speed until smooth. Pour cream cheese mixture evenly over hot crust. In another bowl, stir full pouch lemon filling mix, water and three eggs together using a whisk until eggs are well incorporated. Pour lemon filling over cream cheese layer. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until the center does not jiggle when shaken. Cool completely and cut into squares. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Recipe Source: Krusteaz

The Best First Dance

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The first dance is one of the most anticipated moments of a wedding. Everyone is watching, waiting to see which song the couple has chosen and how they'll add their own twist to a song that may have been played countless times before.

While some brides and grooms may decide to go the traditional route, selecting a sweet slow song, others may choose a more modern tune or select a pop culture favorite, choreographing a surprise routine for friends and family. So the question is which "first dance" genre is the best fit for you? What's your best first dance?

This happily wed couple's first dance is reminiscent of
old Hollywood-style glamor.
Photo Source: In Style Weddings

Classic
Always a popular option, many brides and grooms opt for a song that's stood the test of time. There's a long list of these tunes of yesteryear, which are a sweet and sentimental option, especially for couples who may not be interested in investing in dance lessons or coming up with complicated routines. Here are just a few of my favorite classic first dance songs.

"At Last" by Etta James
"Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers
"It Had to Be You" by Harry Connick, Jr.
"When You Say Nothing at All" by Alison Krauss
"In My Life" by the Beatles
"Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole
"Fools Rush In" by Elvis Presley

Modern
Some couples opt for more recent songs, especially if the song holds a special meaning for them. Check out a list of 30 popular picks from the Knot for some inspiration along with a list of my own favorites below. Daily Candy Weddings has a fun first dance tool that can help couples choose a wedding song based on the bride's and groom's personalities.

"Come Away with Me" by Norah Jones
"Kissing You" by Des'ree (from the soundtrack of Romeo and Juliet)
"Lucky" by Jason Mraz and Colbie Calliet
"Ever the Same" by Rob Thomas
"Remember When" by Alan Jackson
"Iris" by Goo Goo Dolls
"You and Me" by Lifehouse

Funny
Then there are those who decide to skip the slow dance and opt for comical choreography that's often a surprise performance. When else is it appropriate to know all the steps to "The Time of My Life" and to do this dance in front of all your friends and family? Among infamous surprise performances are an irreverent "Baby Got Back" routine, numerous adaptions of "Thriller" and other Michael Jackson favorites and a more recent example in which the bridal party didn't bother holding out for the reception, they danced right down the aisle to Chris Brown's "Forever".

This Alabama couple decided to add some spice to their step for
their first dance. The song selection? A mix of pop, rap and Vanilla Ice.
Photo Source: NormanPhotography.com

Consider creating a dance to a funny surprise song, but be mindful of your audience. Some guests may not share your same sense of humor and may be offended instead of impressed, so choose carefully! Pick dance moves that you'll easily be able to do in your dress and shoes. Does your dress have a train? Be sure that it's not going to get caught up and ruined in your fancy legwork. Is your dress a mermaid style? If so, remember your movement may be much more limited than in your practice clothing. These are all questions to consider when planning out a routine.

Family Tradition
Some couples may choose to embrace a cultural wedding tradition for their first dance. For Jewish weddings, the Hora is a popular first dance where the bride and groom are lifted in chairs in a symbolic gesture as the two are considered to be the "king and queen of the night." For Greek weddings, a circle-style dance is often popular whereas an old Italian tradition is a special dance called the tarantella. Consider how you picture your guests in these more communal style dances. Will only one side of the family know the steps? You can always choose to incorporate some elements of your culture's wedding traditions into your first dance such as a particular song choice or steps without following every rule.

Some newlyweds may want to go with a special dance
that's family tradition like this couple did at their Jewish wedding.

Getting Ready for the Big Moment
If you and your partner aren't the most savvy steppers, consider investing in dance lessons. While the cost varies from city to city and is also based on whether you participate in group or private lessons, it may be worth every penny if it will help alleviate first dance jitters. Most people don't get a do over with the first dance, so lessons can help ensure that you get it right the first time around!

According to CostHelper.com, ballroom dance lessons can cost between $55 to $125 per person although I've seen advertisements for lessons as cheap as $25 per person in Charlotte. If you live near a university or college, you may even be able to take lessons for free if there is a student or community ballroom dance club. UNC-Chapel Hill offered free lessons every Monday throughout the school year when I was an undergrad, and they taught everything from the rhumba to the tango, the foxtrot and more! Visit BallroomDancers.com or Access Dance to find a ballroom dancing instructor near you. Or, if you think that you only need minimal help to prepare for that big moment, consider checking out some instructional dance videos on YouTube. Bottom line is practice makes perfect!

And don't forget to be sure that everything is in order with the music! It will be quite a disappointment if you've spent all this time practicing but the band turns out to be terrible, the DJ's sound system doesn't work or if you've left the CD at home in your player. Add this to your wedding day checklist and enlist the help of a family member or friend to remind you of any last minute preparations for music.

Finally, just enjoy the moment! Don't get so caught up in the routine that you let it pass you by. Whichever song or steps you choose, remember that this is just the first of many dances that you'll share with your new spouse for the rest of your life!

A Night as Queen in the Queen City

Monday, August 10, 2009

If there ever was a perfect night, my birthday was it. Kris kept his plans for the evening a secret until we arrived at our first destination -- Ratcliffe on the Green. A 5-star restaurant known for using fresh local ingredients for a farm-to-the-table approach to fine dining, head chef and Mark Hibbs was recently named a semifinalist for the national and prestigious "Best Chef" award by the James Beard Foundation, which is one of the top honors that a chef can receive in the United States. Our dining experience not only confirmed this but surpassed any expectation or reputation that preceded our dinner visit.

The restaurant was once a historic flower shop dating from the 20s.
The neon sign was the first of its kind in Charlotte.
Photo Source: PhotoCharlotte.com

The more than 100-year-old restaurant was decorated richly with realist still life paintings and the original Tiffany stained glass windows of Ratcliffe's Flower Shoppe, which has been a part of Charlotte's cityscape from the 1920s on. The romantic ambiance of the restaurant is intimate and warm, and the tall spiraling pillars that flank the dining area when coupled with the old-fashioned, over-sized glowing ceiling lights make the main room appear as though it's a stage ready for a performance that's been done time and again, so much so that it's been perfected and one can expect an evening that will impress them time and time again. And really that's exactly what this room is -- a center stage for a repertoire of course after course composed of only the freshest and finest ingredients which are cooked, seasoned and arranged just so for a symphony of tastes that are perfectly in harmony.

The ambiance of Ratcliffe on the Green is like an old dinner theatre
except the food is the star in this delectable performance.
Photo Source: Flickr

While entrees are available separately as a more economical option, I recommend taking the dive and splurging on the chef's tasting menu so that you're able to sample several different dishes. For our first course, I selected the scallops, which were cooked in a white wine beurre blanc sauce over sauteed spinach while Kris sampled a trio of mini crab cakes each served with a different sauce - pico de gallo, Korean BBQ and a creamy remolade. The sea scallops were tender and savory, pan seared to perfection, and the crab cakes were heavy on the crab and light on the bread for a pure taste complimented by the series of sauces.

When our main course arrived, we were really in heaven. We both decided upon the grilled lamp chops, which were served with a blueberry port reduction over wilted spinach and baby golden potatoes. Our dish was perfectly presented on plate and in flavor as the buttery spinach and potatoes complemented the tender lamb, which once again was cooked precisely to order.

After these two magical dishes disappeared before our eyes, a third soon arrived -- dessert. My crème brulee was simply phenomenal. The sweet creamy custard was slightly cool in contrast to the warm golden brown crackling layer of caramel above. Then, amazingly our waiter divulged the Ratcliffe secret for "world-famous crème brulee" to me -- using fresh eggs that are only one to two days old.

Kris' dessert somehow rivaled my selection, his Grand Marnier Souffle was full of spoonful after spoonful of a delicious and sweet, warm bread pudding-like dessert accompanied by a warm and rich sauce flavored with fine liquor. I simply don't think our taste buds will ever be the same.

Then, to top off the evening, as we exit the restaurant hand-in-hand, a horse and carriage are waiting to take us for a ride around the city. Kris and I had the night of our lives being escorted around town by Winston, our trusty steed, and Bridger, our driver and incredibly knowledgeable tour guide who filled us in on the history of Charlotte. He even took us for a ride through the Fourth Ward, the original residential district of the city, which has colonial style homes that date back to the 1800s. We were transported back in time by the sight of the beautiful historic homes, that is until you see the skyscrapers all aglow rising stories above this tucked away part of town that started it all.

Kris and I smile for the camera after an amazing ride around Charlotte
by horse and carriage!
Photo Source: Self

It simply was an unforgettable evening that will live on as a fond memory to cherish and someday far in the future share with children and grandchildren as the night Kris and I felt like king and queen of the Queen City.

A Toast to Taylor

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wine tastings are always fun in my opinion, but one that I attended Tuesday night was especially sweet because the proceeds went to a cause that's near and dear to my heart. A Toast to Taylor raised money for Taylor's Tale, a Charlotte-based non-profit committed to raising awareness and funds to find a cure for Batten disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects children. In particular, Taylor's Tale was founded in honor of the now almost 11-year-old Taylor King who is fighting the disease.

Taylor really is an inspiration to all those around her. Even though Batten disease has robbed her of her vision among other things, she continues to participate in Girls on the Run, completing two recent 5Ks with the help of a running buddy (read a post by the founder of Girls on the Run about Taylor here). And she still dreams of growing up and becoming a fashion designer or pop singer - depending on what day of the week you happen to ask her.

Taylor and her sister, Laura, after Taylor finished the Jingle Jog 5K
in Charlotte this December.
Photo Source: Taylor's Tale

A Toast to Taylor is just one of many events that Taylor's Tale has put on in recent memory to fuel the fight against Batten disease with others including a group exercise class, a poolside BBQ and a springtime celebration. The planning of future fundraising events is in the works, so be sure to check the calendar of events on www.TaylorsTale.com soon! You could also become a fan of Taylor's Tale on Facebook or follow Taylor's sister's blog to find out about upcoming events and initiatives. Or, if you're interesting in supporting the charity financially, you can make a donation by clicking here. Cheers to the supporters of Taylor and Taylor's Tale!

Wine Tasting and Tapas Notes

Tuesday's wine tasting benefit was held at Las Ramblas, a delicious Spanish tapas bar in Charlotte. The five wines selected were a nice sampling with each of the blends carrying a very distinct and unique flavor. The line up was as follows:
1. Kenwood Pinot Gris
2. Angoves Viognier
3. Hess Chardonnay
4. Robertson Merlot
5. Natura Cabernet Sauvignon
My favorites were definitely the Pinot Gris and, above all, the Cabernet. The Cabernet tasted of chocolate and cherries; the wine had a very smooth, full-bodied flavor. It definitely would be great paired with a chocolate dessert. The Pinot Gris was lighter, carrying notes of tartness along with a citrus flavor. Even the Chardonnay was good; instead of the traditional oaky, buttery taste, it held hints of green apple, vanilla and peach.

Enjoying a Toast to Taylor with friends!
Photo Source: Self

As for the tapas, the Las Ramblas Sliders (skewered marinated lamb with a mint yogurt sauce) and the Crab Stuffed Picollo Peppers were standouts with the Queso de Cabra Frita, fried goat cheese with almonds, roasted garlic and quince honey, as another notable dish. The paella wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but the dessert more than made up for this shortcoming. Testing out my recent infatuation with Tres Leches Cake first experienced at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, the dessert passed the test a second time. The sweet, caramel soaked cake was too-good-to-be true although it could have done without the mile-high layer of icing. I also nibbled on a piece of Tosta de Chocolate, a tasty and unlikely pairing of chocolate, salt and baguette, which turned out to be quite good and disappeared right before our eyes!

The honey, almond and garlic sauce that accompanied
Queso de Cabra Frita added balance and gave the dish a unique flavor.
Photo Source: Self

Verdict: Las Ramblas has a fun, laid-back atmosphere that's perfect for post-work drinks and appetizers. While the food is an Americanized version of real Spanish tapas, the variety of options, and above all, the company make it well worth the while. Be sure to save room for dessert!

"A" is for A La Mode Part II

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Calling all ice cream lovers! This is the second post of a two-part look at all things ice cream from A to Z. For the first part of "A" is for A La Mode, which covers a la mode to ice cream cones, click here.

Italian Ice: made with concentrated syrup or fruit purees, Italian ice is made in the same process that ice cream is, but does not contain milk, eggs or cream -- only fruit or fruit-flavored ingredients. Unlike snow cones, Italian ice has very small flavored ice crystals giving it a smooth, cold texture.

Juice Bar: just what it sounds like, juice bars are made of fruit juice and/or pulverized fruit, which is frozen on a stick.

Milkshake: dubbed a drink that "brings the boys to the yard", milkshakes are made with ice cream and milk to produce a delicious, drinkable dessert. Though today malt is an ingredient that's often left out, this used to be a staple milkshake ingredient of yesteryears.
Popcicle: a popular American brand of ice pops, the Popcicle was invented by an 11-year-old boy who left his mixed powdered soda pop and water outside with a stirring stick and discovered the next morning that the mixture had frozen to the stick! Popcicles are made of 90 percent water, and the rest is artificial flavoring. Later the Creamsicle was created, a dessert comprised of vanilla ice cream on a stick surrounded by sticky sweet frozen fruit flavoring. Next came the Fudsicle, a creamy chocolate flavored variation of this sticked sweet.
These pretty Triple-decker Citrus Pops are made with three different
kinds of fruit juice for a fresh twist on the traditional Popsicle.
Photo Source: MyRecipes

Push Pop: typically made of sherbet, and sometimes ice cream. Push Pops are a similar concept to ice cream cones - the treat is revealed as it's eaten via a plastic cup and stick which, when pushed, causes the sherbet to rise.

Semifreddo: Italian for "half cold", semifreddos can include a number of chilled or partially frozen desserts including frozen custard, ice cream cake and fruit tarts. Fortunately for those without ice cream machines, you can still make semifreddos in your freezer! Dried fruit and nuts are popular additions to semifreddos.
This semifreddo, or half-frozen dessert, has a chocolate custard center
with an Oreo crust. Assembly time required is less than an hour.
Photo Source: Brown-Eyed Baker

Sherbet: sherbet is similar to sorbet, except that sherbet contains dairy products like milk and/or eggs while sorbet does not. Sherbet has a smooth texture that's more similar to ice cream, and in the U.S. it contains between one to two percent milkfat.

Smoothie: a recently popularized drink that typically, although not always, has a fruit base. Smoothies can be made with any combination of fruit juice, milk, yogurt, frozen fruit and other ingredients. Many smoothie shops have popped up around the nation in recent years with some of the most popular being Smoothie King, Jamba Juice and Planet Smoothie. These shops often offer mix-in nutritional supplements such as caffeine, vitamins, fiber and more.
Smoothies come in all colors and flavors with this unusual blend
containing a mixture of honeydew melon, kiwis and green grapes.
Photo Source: eHow

Snowcone: crushed ice served in a paper cone with fruit syrup flavoring in varieties such as cherry, grape, blue raspberry or the iconic rainbow snowcone.

Sorbet: made with sugar, fruit and ice rather than cream, milk and eggs, sorbets are a tart and tasty fat-free frozen treat. Occasionally egg whites may be used for body.

Sorbetto: often used interchangeably with sorbet, sorbetto is more strongly flavored than sorbet but is made using the same process.
This sweet tart sorbetto is the perfect cool down treat for a
hot summer day.
Photo Source: Epicurious

"A" is for A La Mode Part I

Monday, July 20, 2009

In the alphabet of ice cream, "A" is for a la mode. In honor of National Ice Cream Month, I have created an A to Z guide for the abounding number of different types of iced and frozen desserts that can be enjoyed.

"T" is for toppings of hot fudge, sprinkles and a cherry on top.
Photo Source: Photo Bucket

A la mode: French for "with ice cream on top."

Astronaut Ice Cream: the popularity of ice cream has literally taken it out of this world! Freeze-dried ice cream, also known as "astronaut ice cream" was first tasted in space in the 1960s during the Apollo missions. Typically this unique take on ice cream comes as a dry, chalky neopolitan-style block of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors.

Blizzard: a Dairy Queen ice cream treat that's been an American favorite since the 80s, the Blizzard has the consistency of a very thick milkshake and is made with a variety of mix-ins including Oreos, Reese's, Snickers and Heath bars to name a few. Newest flavors include Cheesequake, Brownie Batter and Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, which were introduced in 2004.

Freeze Pop: also known as an ice pop, freeze pops are frozen ice with artificial fruit flavoring packaged in long plastic tubes as a cheap summer treat popular among children.

Frozen Custard: similar to ice cream, frozen custard is made with eggs, but is made using a different process from ice cream making it thicker, creamier, and more prone to melting. Frozen custard typically comes in simple flavor offerings such as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.

Frozen Yogurt: also known as "fro yo", frozen yogurt is a healthy frozen alternative to ice cream typically containing less fat and calories than the traditional scoop. While ice cream must have at least 10 percent milk fat to be considered authentic, frozen yogurt has a maximum of six percent milkfat and some varieties can have less than one percent.
Gelato: an Italian frozen dessert made with more milk than cream, making it a less fattening than traditional ice cream. This frozen treat is made via a process that causes it to have less air than ice cream, giving it a denser, smoother texture. Another key difference between ice cream and gelato is that the ingredients of the latter do not undergo homogenization, which causes it to melt more quickly.
You may get a sugar high just from looking at this overflowing glass
of homemade pistachio and chocolate gelato.
Photo Source: Saveur

Glace: French ice cream, which typically is made with eggs and cream to give it a fuller, custard-like taste.

Ice Cream: the treat that started it all! Well, almost. Historians dispute the exact origins of ice cream, but references trace back to at least 4th century B.C., and many believe that the Chinese invented ice cream before bringing it to Europe. Ice cream began as a treat for royalty and well-known historical figures such as Nero, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Catherine de Medici who were among the early adorers of then called "iced cream."

With the invention of hand-cranked freezer in the 1800s followed by advances in modern refrigeration in the 1900s, many more people could enjoy or make the treat, which became less expensive and more readily available. Next came ice cream concoctions such as the ice cream sandwich, ice cream cake, ice cream floats, the ice cream sundae, milkshakes along with an explosion of flavors from Fried Ice Cream to Cherry Garcia.
Follow Cooking Light's 7 easy steps for homemade ice cream.
Photo Source: Cooking Light

Ice Cream Cones: Waffle, sugar, cake or dipped -- take your pick! Ice cream cones have taken on a new shape since their invention at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and today they can come dipped in chocolate, covered in nuts, sprinkles and more! In recent years the advent of the Waffle cone bowl has been a happy marriage for lovers of Waffles cones and ice cream sundaes.

Check back soon for the rest of the ice cream alphabet along with more recipes for frozen treats!

A Day in the Life of a CakeSpy Gumshoe

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I'm excited to announce that I've joined a team of CakeSpy Gumshoes, a network of food writers and lovers of baked goodies and treats of all types who to seek out sweetness in every day life! My first CakeSpy post was on Amelie's French Bakery & Cafe, a sweet spot in the heart of NoDa in Charlotte that offers tempting desserts around the clock as a 24/7 bakery.

CakeSpy is a blog that has a great recipes, bakery reviews, and more!
It's pretty much guaranteed to add sweetness to your day.
Photo Source: CakeSpy

It seems that Charlotteans agree with me that Amelie's is a delicious and even divine experience, not to mention its chic decor. Amelie's is the recent winner of the "Best Dessert Award" at the 2009 Taste of Charlotte and has been recognized by the Charlotte Observer for offering one of food editor Kathleen Purvis' favorite Charlotte foods -- a salted caramel brownie (and yes it is as delicious and decadent as it sounds).

Antique furniture and cozy oversized armchairs are
a part of Amelie's fun environment that's a haven
for Charlotteans of all callings.
Photo Source: Self

I recommend dropping in at Amelie's whether to sample a croissant or colossal muffin for breakfast, a tartine or cup of hot soup for lunch or dinner or for a late-night pastry, fruit tart or torte. If you live in the SouthPark area, a Slice of Amelie's, a smaller albeit still delicious version of the beloved bakery, has opened in Cafe Monte Bistro near Phillips Place.

And as for CakeSpy, those with a sweet tooth should be sure to surf around their site as they offer a wealth of resources on bakeries across the country in addition to fun cupcake art and cartoons, delicious recipes and more! I myself have drooled over many a CakeSpy post, including the following Cookie Cake Pie recipe that I made recently for my fiance's birthday. It was a tasty and indulgent treat combining the best aspects of cookie, cake and pie!

Cookie Cake Pie is just one example of a creative and
delicious CakeSpy dessert!
Photo Source: CakeSpy

The Most Important Item in Your Suitcase

Friday, July 10, 2009

Aside from your passport, plane tickets and money, each of which should be in your purse or money belt and not in your checked luggage, there is one necessity that stands out as arguably the most important item that you’ll pack. It’s not your ear plugs, your iPod or makeup, although those are important too. No, the most important item in your suitcase is — your shoes.

Be sure to leave room for comfortable travel shoes
that pass my test below!
Photo Source: Mystery Creature

Not just any shoes will do. You’ll need to carefully select several pairs that not only fit with your itinerary, but more importantly, are also functional, comfortable and broken in. Believe me; I’m speaking from experience when I say it’s safe to pass on the cute shoes you’ve spotted during a last-minute shopping trip. Skip on them even if they’re flats. By the end of my first two hours walking around London I didn’t look so cute limping from the large blisters on the back of my feet! Within five days I was resigned to wearing the flip flops I had packed for the shower since every other pair I had brought had given me blisters. As my fiancé so kindly put it, “Your feet make you look like you’re homeless.” Ouch.

These are examples of shoes that should be left at home.
While they may look cute, you won't look very posh
after twisting an ankle on cobblestone streets.
Photo Source: NY Post

Fortunately you can learn from my fashion faux pas and save yourself the pain and trouble of trying to explain to a non-English speaker in broken French and charades that you need Band-aids for les pieds. All you have to do is follow my Should These Shoes Make It into My Suitcase Test to ensure that you will have happy feet for the duration of your trip!

Just because you're packing comfortable shoes doesn't mean
you have to sacrafice style! These ballerinas come in virtually
every color and style to match your taste.
Photo Source: Team Sugar

Should These Shoes Make It into My Suitcase Test
  • Have I worn these shoes regularly for at least two weeks to a month or longer? Did I walk for long periods of time without developing blisters, cuts or rashes?
  • Are they easy to walk in? Can you walk in them at length without slipping or wobbling?
  • If they do have a heel, is it shorter than two inches? Flats and ballerina shoes are best, but short heels can be an option. Cowgirl boots are another trendy style that may be appropriate depending on their fit and your comfort level.
  • Do the shoes have a good grip or tread? London rain makes for slippery streets and well-worn shoes can be a tripping or slipping hazard.
  • Do I have at least one to two pairs of closed-toed shoes packed?
  • Do the shoes match outfits I’m bringing? Do I have too many pairs of blacks or browns?
  • Do I have a good balance of casual versus dressy shoes that fits the activities planned?
  • Should I bring tennis shoes? Maybe and maybe not. While I decided to forgo bringing sneakers to better blend in when abroad, there are obvious situations when you may need tennis shoes, hiking boots, water shoes or other specialized feet wear. Use your own discretion to decide what is most appropriate and when.

Three Delicious Summer Reads

Sunday, July 5, 2009

If you're looking for a great read to help pass poolside time while working on a tan, here are three fun foodie books to indulge in.

This book is all about passion. Whether that's a passion for food, travel or her photographer, main character and writer Meg Parker discovers the joys of each while exploring the French countryside in a quest to finish her first book. This delicious tale is a page turner, and author Nancy Coon's descriptions will whisk you away to a land of toile and tartines.


The Discovery of Chocolate is the mouth-watering fictional tale of the evolution of chocolate throughout history intertwined with a love story (think Tuck Everlasting meets Chocolat). The story is told through the eyes of a young Spainard who comes to the new world and falls in love with a beautiful native who gives him a chocolate elixir drink that will forever change him. Romantic, compelling and exciting, The Discovery of Chocolate is a fairy tale for adults.


This New York Times bestseller is an autobiographical narrative of "one woman's search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia." Author Elizabeth Gilbert sets out to fulfill some of her lifelong dreams after her marriage falls apart by traveling the world. She indulges in delicious food and language lessons in Italy and searches for God in an ashram in India. Finally, she finds balance and unexpected love on the Indonesian island of Bali.

DJ by Destination

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

With summer in full swing it's primetime for vacations and gatherings with friends and family. Whether you're traveling by plane, train or automobile, you'll need some inspiring tunes to change your attitude as you switch latitudes.

Let your destination dictate song choices
  • Is the coast your destination? Check out some recommended tunes from my beach playlist below.
  • Are you hopping a plane to London? Don't forget to add Elton John and Beatles favorites to your list! National Geographic also has a great London playlist that you can download on iTunes.
  • Alternately, if you're heading to the states from Europe, a few fun American favorites like "American Pie" by Don McLean and "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynard Skynard or "Why Georgia" by John Mayer and "Omaha" by the Counting Crows are a couple songs to add to the mix.
You can bet that while everyone else on my plane to London
was sleeping I was rocking out to some Beatles tunes!
Photo Source: Eco Worldly

Calculate the length of your trip to make sure you aren't hitting repeat.
  • Are you taking a transatlantic trip? If so, you'll need a much longer list than if you were taking a couple hour jaunt to the beach. Be sure to make your list much longer than the length of the trip as you may skip over songs en route. Don't just rely on the radio -- I was once on a 14-hour roadtrip to Florida for Spring Break and the antenna snapped off two hours into the trip! Be prepared with plenty of tracks to fill the time it takes to get to your destination.
Being tuneless for any stretch of a roadtrip is no way to start the fun.
Photo Source: I've Been There

Consider your travel companions when making making selections.
  • If you're planning to play the songs that others will be listening to, consider their styles in music too. Grandma probably isn't going to enjoy listening to rap music. But if it's you and a car full of girls, don't hesitate to crank 80s favorites like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
Traveling Tunes
There aren't any rules, so please feel free to add your own favorite roadtrip songs by adding them to the end of this post! My playlists are just a reflection of my own taste and preference in music, so these songs are just a jump off for you to create a playlist with your own favorite songs and bands. Still need more inspiration? Check out more themed lists voted as bests by NPR listeners.

Beach Trip Tunes
"Tequila Sunrise" by the Eagles
"If You Like Pina Coladas" by Jimmy Buffet
"Sail Away" by OAR
"Two Pina Coladas" by Garth Brooks
"Summertime" by Kenny Chesney
"Summer Girls" by LFO
"Cheeseburger in Paradise" by Jimmy Buffett
"Sitting on the dock of the bay" by Hootie and the Blowfish
"I Shot the Sheriff" by Bob Marley
"No Shoes, No Shirts, No Problems" by Kenny Chesney

Songs for All Destinations
"So Alive" by Ryan Adams
"Beautiful Day" by U2
"Holiday in Spain" by Counting Crows
"Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman
"Hotel California" by Eagles
"Break Away" by Kelly Clarkson
"Anywhere You Go" by Gin Blossoms
"If I had a million dollars" by Barenaked Ladies
"Picture" by Filter
"Across the Universe" by the Beatles
"Here Is Gone" by Goo Goo Dolls
"Holiday" by Green Day
"Sweetness" by Jimmy Eat World
"Satellite" by Dave Matthews Band
"Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol
"Trains" by Ryan Adams
"Viva la Vie" by Coldplay
"Clocks" by Coldplay
"City of Blinding Lights" by U2
"It's My Life" by Bon Jovi
"It's All Been Done" by Barenaked Ladies
"Here's to the Night" by Eve
"Learn to Fly" by Foo Fighters

 
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