The Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Feed

Here is the story of how a school community event was named after me.

“Are you the Virginia Taylor from The Carey School’s Virginia Taylor’s Spaghetti Dinner??” Curtis Chen, one of my colleagues from the Financial Network, asked me as we were standing around during a break at one of our quarterly conferences.  I am sure he thought it was a long shot, asking this woman who looks like she has children in college with a pretty common name in a business meeting for financial advisors if she was involve in the this Carey School event.  What would the chances be that I was The Virginia from the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Dinner?

“I started that tradition at my kid’s school in the early ninety’s and they ended up naming the event after me, a true honor”, I told my new friend Curtis as I grew a few inches taller.

I knew of The Carey School from my good friend, Sandi Nichols.  She calls my boy Geoff, her blonde headed son.  I brought three month old Geoff to the hospital when Sandi gave birth to her second son, Brian.  They have been best friends ever since.  Taylor, her older son was in preschool at Carey when I suggested that our twelve year old niece Monica live with David, me and our two toddlers to give her mom a break.  She was twelve going on twenty one and her Taylor-made smarts caused friction in all areas of her life especially in the parental relationship arena.  She was in a school for challenged children and was running circles around everyone so thought a good, normal private school would give her a better chance of success.  “Mr. Simpson, what do you think about having Monica join the seventh grade class at the Carey School”, I asked the new Carey headmaster at our first meeting.  Instead of easily taking on another tuition for the school (which was sorely needed), he spent an hour and a half guiding me how to navigate the unfamiliar private school landscape by giving me recommendations of which school would be appropriate for Monica along with the best way to present my case for her .  One month later Monica was successfully transitioned into seventh grade at an excellent private school and was on her way to making top grades, with of course, a few hiccups in between as with most tweens.  I will never forget the kindness and wisdom Bob gave me that day and knew that The Carey School was the place for our children.

“I’ll take on doing the carnival food for the Halloween Carey Fest”, I sheepishly told the president of the parent’s association when no other volunteers came forward.  It was my first parent’s association meeting in my long life as a school volunteer and here I was taking on the least favorite of all positions; developing, organizing and running the food booth for three hundred plus kids and their parents over a three day carnival and haunted house on the school grounds.  I stayed up late for numerous nights in the school’s kitchen popping popcorn for hundreds of popcorn balls and making batch after batch of cookie dough for oversized cookies.  We sold those treats along with hot dogs and pizza (complete with rented oven).  I learned how to work a soda fountain, organized all the help, shopped for all of the food and manned the booth throughout the weekend and I was crazy enough to do this for three years.  The last year we did this, it rained the entire weekend and the three days of hard work netted us only $5,000.

In the early 90’s this fundraising business was a new thing for the Carey School.  The Carey sisters, Mary T. Carey and Clare Carey Willard had just retired and a group of determined parents hired Bob Simpson as headmaster and did the work to made a go at creating a traditional, nonprofit private school.  Tuition needed to be increased, the discount for multiple children was discarded, annual giving was established and the Parent’s Association was started to mainly raise funds to keep the doors open.

When Sandi and I became President and Vice President of the Parents Association, we knew there had to be a better way to raise money.  Beth, my food partner in crime, had run a number of their children’s walk-a-thons for her children’s school in the Sunnyvale school district.  Their event makes over $100,000 and while it was a much larger student body, Sandi and I estimated that our community could raise at least $20,000 with this new one day formula.

Beth gave me all of their walk-a-thon materials and Sandi and I patterned our walk-a-thon as much to West Valley Elementary as feasible, given our school was only one quarter the size.  It was a stretch to ask every child to raise money through sponsoring them for each lap walked and creating a competitive atmosphere around their accomplishments.   We stopped doing the haunted house, made a much smaller one day carnival and served one lunch for everyone to partake in.  It was not an easy tradition to break, everyone loved the old version with its neighborhood feel but after our event netted $60,000 in one day, everyone in The Carey community was thrilled with the new format.

Sandi ran the walk-a-thon portion of the event until her youngest son graduated from The Carey School and when she left, they wanted to honor Sandi’s hard work and re-name the fundraiser The Sandi Nichol’s Walk-a-Thon but she kindly declined. “It takes a community to create that event, not just me”, Sandi explained.  I was not so humble with The Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Feed.

I became known for my food at the Carey School.  I weaseled my way into becoming a cook for the Carey School Board’s Italian dinner that was a popular item at their new auction fundraiser then added a Mexican dinner and cooking class.  The year that I offered just one French dinner, it went for $10,000 for 10 people.  Still thinking of ways to make money for the school, I recommended doing an annual spaghetti feed for the entire community charging for the adults and children.  I figured we could add another $6,000 to $7,000 to the coffers and we would all have fun doing it.  The parent association liked my idea but wanted to do it as a community thank you.  The Spaghetti Feed was born and it was my baby to run.


Our menu consisted of an antipasto plate placed in the middle of the serving line to keep the crowds happy as they waited for their spaghetti.  Along with the spaghetti, we served a mixed salad with kidney and garbanzo beans, cucumbers and tomatoes with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing that we made with the little packets of powder, mayonnaise and buttermilk.  To keep the kids happy, we also made plain spaghetti with butter and cream and homemade garlic bread mixed with grated Parmesan Reggiano.    All of this was prepped at my house with two batches of four helpers, the morning shift and afternoon shift, the day before the event.  I had people prepping salad, frying Italian sausage, chopping basil and oregano, slicing mushrooms, pitting olives, dicing onions, mincing garlic, chopping sundried tomatoes and opening cans.

Opening cans was one of the most important but least loved job.  “Virginia, I have a present for you, actually two”, one of my helper said as she walked into my house ready to put on her apron.  “Two brand new, sharp can openers to make our job a bit easier”, she beamed as dived into the first restaurant sized can of whole tomatoes.  By 4 pm we had three five gallon pots of sauce ready for a few hour simmer on the Carey kitchen stove.  The day of our event, I got up early and boiled and oiled twenty plus pounds of pasta and place it in extra large zip loc bags.  No need for a facial after that.  I would have a group at school working on the bread, the antipasto plates and making the quarts and quarts of dressing.  Getting the sauce on the stove early was important.  It took close to two hours to bring the sauce to a simmer, then another few hours of cooking to meld the flavors.  I always added fresh basil at the end for a refreshing blast of zing.  Betty, our receptionist and excellent server came in at 5 pm to take her place of honor on a stool on the left hand side of the serving window and served everyone their pasta.

After Betty arrived always with that twinkle in her eye and smile on her face, I brought the water to a boil, dumped a pound or so of pasta in a make shift strainer basket and boiled the pasta for a minute or so to heat the noodle.  After straining the pasta, leaving a bit of the starchy water clinging to add body to the finish dish, I would add the sauce, toss and dump it into the “red sauce” chafing dish.  I did the same with the butter noodles.  Periodically, Betty would yell out,” More red sauce”, and I would jump into action, dumping in another pound or so of pasta in that starchy water.  It was hot, hectic and a heck of a lot of fun.

I am not sure how they pull it off now but I know the numbers of guests have doubled.  I do not think they make the sauce or boil the pasta or make the bread but something tells me, Betty still serves the pasta.

A few weeks ago The Carey School called me up and asked if I would make four quarts of the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti sauce to give as a parting gift to the accreditation auditors that were visiting the school.  I was honored they thought of me and immediately agreed to make the sauce and bring it over on Wednesday morning.  Tuesday evening, as I was getting ready to jar the sauce, I discovered I was out of quart sized jars so made a mental note to buy more jars in the morning after my 8 am meeting.  As I was shopping for dinner that night, I remembered about the spaghetti sauce in my outside refrigerator still waiting to get jarred while I am sure, the auditors were happily done with their audit and on their prospective planes back home, with no sauce.

“We couldn’t take the sauce home anyway since we have carry-on bags”, the auditors kindly told the headmaster, trying to make light of not having the sauce he promised.  Luckily Lisa, the head of development had a great suggestion when I called her at home to apologize for my forgetfulness, “Jar the sauce up, put it in the freezer and I will overnight it to them tomorrow with an ice bag.”  I was thrilled that I could still be a part of reviving the old history by bringing back the original sauce.

I remember telling Bob that I must have done something right in a past life to be blessed with such unbelievable children.  To my observation, he said, “The apple does not fall far from the tree”.   I now know the Carey school has to be one of the main branches of that tree.

My Favorite Spaghetti Dinner Menu

Italian Sausage Spaghetti with Capers and Sundried Tomatoes

Green Beans with Toasted Almond

Caesar Salad with Homemade Croutons


Garlic Bread


Blueberry Bars

No matter what, I always serve this pasta with Green Beans with Almonds and Caesar Salad.

I love the combination together and have been known to mix the green beans and salad directly into my spaghetti. I love the crunch of the toasted almonds in the pasta. I usually make extra toasted almonds and top my spaghetti with the nuts versus Parmesan cheese. I also love this pasta with bread smeared with lots of butter that was cooked with a few minced garlic cloves, combined with freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano then toasted, like I did for The Carey spaghetti dinner. Actually, I love that toasty crunchy bread with the sauce. To satisfy this craving, I serve extra sauce on the side for those who like a little more sauce on their pasta or for those like me, who use the bread as a vehicle to eat the sauce. I do not have a recipe on the blog for this bread but you really do not need one. Just melt a half cube of butter in a small saucepan and cook two mince garlic cloves until soft but not too brown. Take the saucepan off the heat and add the rest of the butter to just barely melt and add about a half cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper (especially if you use unsalted butter). Cut the loaf in half and spread with half the butter mixture evenly on the cut side and do the same with the remaining piece. Cut the bread into serving pieces but not going all the way through. Broil until just brown, watching carefully.

Many desserts go with this meal; just keep it simple and not too heavy. This recipe deserves a top billing on my blog because if its ease, versitility and crumbly goodness. Trixie Putnam, a parent of a Woodside Priory child and excellent cook, sent me this recipe (along with numerous others) as a candiate for our school’s community cookbook. After reading the recipe, I knew I would love it. The crust and crumb is the same dough and it is easy to switch out the fruit filling to whatever fruit you have in your refrigerator or your garden. I have made these bars with apricots, peaches, plums, blackberries, apples and rhubarb all with wonderful success. It makes enough for a crowd and also freezes well for a future treat. All great reasons to get into the kitchen and cook up a batch.

Click on the links to find my recipes for these dishes and for tips on how to make them picture perfect. Also, if you want to know more about the pictures in the post, hover over them for the explanation.



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The First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

Quinty and I create our own version of Charlie and Tim’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Hamilton, Montana.

After Quinty and I redeemed our golden tickets to Charles Perry’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Montana last August, we made a pact to start our own version of those sought-after dinners.  After our stint experiencing Tim and Charlie’s note worthy dinner in Livingston, we took the long road home to Hamilton and, along with working on all the relationship issues we had in our lives; we coordinated our plan of attack to offer a series of multiple-course menus in her home with the eclectic Hamilton crowd.  We dreamed about inviting her friends, which included restaurant chefs, a movie producer, folks transplanted from San Francisco, Hamilton scientists, holistic health practitioners and a cast of characters that with a little wine and good food would naturally create a wonderful party.  We imagined the hubbub of gossip about who would be attending each dinner.  We laughed about how surprised the guests would be about the unusual flavor components of each dish. In general, on that ride home, we envisioned in our minds a tradition that would be the talk of the town, like the Charles Perry International dinner series in Livingston, Montana.

Quinty was introduced to me by one of my dearest friends, Karen Varnhagen in the mid 1980’s and I immediatly knew we would become best buds.  Not only did we become fast friends, she was my husband’s first employee and ended up running his Amsterdam operation in the late 90’s-early 2000’s.  She is an avid snow skier (flew off a cornice my husband and friend were negotiating), passionate hiker, best idea woman I know, yoga nut, always is up for a fun adventure, devoted animal lover and is one of the people I would choose to live in a commune with (along with her darling husband Gordon!). 

Charlie started visiting his old friend, Tim Cahill, in Livingston in the early 90s as a means to give his dog Sadie, a huge greyhound-Labrador mix, a chance to run around in the woods and escape her urban LA life.  They met in the early 70s as rock-and-roll journalists at the fledgling Rolling Stone Magazine.  When Rolling Stone birthed Outside Magazine, Tim was one of the two employees on staff that actually liked the outdoors.  He began traveling for Outside Magazine almost full time and thought it was more fun than watching the wild and crazy band members trash their hotel rooms.   Seven adventure books later and with the reputation of being the best known adventure and travel writer around, Tim has settled into an idyllic life in Livingston, Montana with a cohort of artists and writers to pal around with in one of the most pristine parts of the country that I know.  Charlie took a different path.

Charles Perry’s decade at Rolling Stone Magazine was just a detour from his passion for Middle Eastern languages and food.  He studied the former at Princeton and Berkeley and found his love of food during a stint in Lebanon.  Throughout the 60s and 70s, he was roommates with Augustus Owsley Stanley (the king of acid for you younger folks), was a permanent fixture in the Haight and had weekly potlucks with the likes of Alice Waters and Jerry Towers, Jeremiah to you and me.  Before his eighteen-year career as a staff writer for the LA Times’ award winning Food Section, he was a hand-to-mouth freelance writer spending months at a time researching medieval cookery at libraries in Egypt, Syria, Paris, London and Dublin.  His colorful background set the pace for becoming known as the best renowned food historian in the United States.  Since his retirement from the Los Angeles Times in 2008, no moss has grown on his feet; he still travels extensively in the Middle East, is an annual presenter at the Oxford Symposium on food and cooking, started and still participates in the Culinary Historians of Southern California, continues to work on his new book, Partying Like it’s 1399, and cooks authentic international cuisine for his annual Livingston dinner series.

Maybe it was in the stars that Quinty and I lucked into two highly prized seats at the 2010 dinner series.  “Virginia, Quinty and Darla here, I have a great proposition for you”, Quinty interrupted over the speaker phone at one of my girlfriend’s dinner parties.  She explained, “Darla has been trying to get an invite into one of these Charles Perry dinner parties for years and she got her wish along with a few other spots.  You just HAVE to come,” they pleaded. They knew it was short notice but fifty thousand United miles later, history was made in our minds, planting the idea of our own Charles Perry style Hamilton dinner series for August 2011.  

In July, the pre-dinner series prep began as I put on my thinking cap to come up with four five-course menus and Quinty whittled down the guest list as best as she could to ten guests per evening.  Forgetting to count ourselves and Gordon, Quinty’s husband, we quickly changed our game plan to an outdoor evening on her back porch since her dining room table only held ten and then began the prayer vigils for no rain.  “The Wallace’s now want to go to the same dinner as the Watkins’s but if I take them from the Saturday night dinner, the O’Brien’s will not know anyone,” Quinty wailed as she agonized over her guest list, thoughtfully making sure each guest would find other new and interesting individuals to meet along with friends for comfort.  I began wondering if Quinty would be sporting a new wig when she picked me up at the airport due to the hair pulling caused by her well intentioned efforts.  Quinty included Charlie and Tim on our second night and not only did they RSVP yes, but Charlie graciously offered to cook the two following dinners.  I put aside my Spanish and Italian Menu for Charlie’s Azerbaijani and Indian dinners and was thrilled to have the extra help and to learn from him again.  Charlie knows his stuff as far as authenticity goes, whereas I ad lib.  My dinners would be around the theme of Pan Asian and Southwestern, gaining inspiration from my Tahoe cooking class mentors, Marge Poore, Donna Nordin and Joyce Jue, along with my personal biases.  Charlie’s inspiration comes from the ancient cookery manuscripts from the libraries of the Middle East.  I knew we were going to make a great pair and excitement began to stir in my being.

I arrived a few days before my first dinner to do the shopping for all the courses, organize myself and start prepping.  Quinty was busy preparing the linens, planting the last bits of flowers for that added color, setting up the outdoor entertainment area for our cocktail hour and finally, setting the table.  Millie, Quinty’s mother’s good friend, brought the flowers for the table and came back each day to replenish the wilting ones with those fresh from her garden.  Gordon raked, swept and hauled furniture.  Cars were slowing down as they drove by to catch a glimpse of the activity.   I could just imagine what they were saying, “Bob, what’s going on over there?  Look at the gorgeously set table, that inviting sitting area and wow, that well stocked bar.  What lucky guests!”  I was the lucky one though; I was happily in the kitchen creating the taste ambiance for the coming evenings.

The actual day of each dinner event was hectic with guests coming over to help prep while I gave out instructions and worked to keep myself on track. “No, slice the cucumber a bit thinner and more evenly.”, “Get the pan hot-hot before you sear the tuna.”, “Don’t forget the won ton cups in the oven!” I carefully nudged my help. “And Gordon, do not forget to stir the risotto!”, I reminded him.

Slowly, my to-dos were crossed off, the setting sun came through the porch doors and the guests started to arrive.  Each evening started with a short cocktail hour including a themed libation to match the international menu and appetizer to minimize the drinks’ potent effects.  Then Quinty and Gordon invited us to our assigned seats to indulge in the plated four-course dinner.

The first night was Pan Asian and I started with a traditional Asian appetizer that I learned from Joyce Jue, a cookbook writer who worked as a food journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle.  She hand made then fried her pastry for this tasty vegetable treat but to make it easier without compromising the taste, I use won ton wrappers brushed with oil then placed in mini muffin tins.  This version is perfect for a cocktail buffet since the shells hold up well for the vegetable filling.  Joyce’s recipe calls for dried shrimp but I keep mine vegetarian, using a chiffonade of carrot, Jicama and bamboo shoots topped with a dollop of sweet and spicy chili sauce.

After we finished our top hat appetizer served with sake, Quinty stood and rang her dinner bell, “Please everyone, place your cocktail glasses on the table and make your way to your assigned seat.  Our first course is being served.” 

Just click on the hyperlink to go to the recipe page, which gives a bit more history of the dish along with step-by-step instructions:

A Special Pan Asian Menu for the
First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

July 30, 2011

With Sake

Top Hats
(Jicama, Bamboo Shoots and Carrots in Won Ton Cups
with Sweet Chili Sauce)

First Course

Green Curry Risotto with Shrimp
and Chinese Long Beans  

Second Course

Ahi Tuna Salad with Pickled Cucumbers
in Ginger Vinaigrette


Mandarin Steak on Bed of Pan Fried Noodles

Stir Fried Vegetables


Cherry Soup with Coconut Sorbet and Fresh Berries


Our first course is one of my favorite risottos—my true version of Italian-Asian fusion, or should I correctly say my friend Ivo’s version.  He is the best chef I know that does not cook in a professional kitchen.  Calling him a home cook does not do Ivo justice.  He used to live in my neighborhood and we would eat at each others dinner tables at least once a week, if not more.  We met Ivo and his wife Mira when I was pregnant with Geoff twenty four years ago, so the meals we have eaten together are uncountable.  Mira and Ivo now live in Croatia and I look forward to the opportunity to blog a few menus from their farm home on an island off Split.  Needless to say, this is Ivo’s risotto that I copied.  He does not do recipes but I ask enough questions to be a competent copier.  It is a traditional risotto with a spicy-coconut side sauce consisting of a Thai shrimp curry.  You combine the two with a few handfuls of blanched long beans and some heady Thai basil to make heaven in a bowl.  Make the risotto a bit loose, it is best that way.

Our second course was a salad consisting of a quickly seared piece of pristine sashimi grade Ahi tuna, thinly sliced on a bed of greens with avocado, radishes and toasted almonds in a ginger-soy vinaigrette.  That presentation is perfect, but to add a sweet, sour, and hot twist, I included my mother’s version of pickled cucumbers but made it Asian style by using rice wine vinegar for the pickle, serranos for that heat and cilantro for the finishing touch on this condiment.  I serve this dish as a weeknight entree just the way it is or with a piece of pan-seared salmon in place of the tuna.  It is one of my family’s favorites.

I like doing Wolfgang Puck’s Mandarin steak recipe as my entree with my Pan-Asian menus because it is easy and delicious and can be done ahead of time.  I use Thomas Keller’s version of a quickly pan seared steak that he then pops into the oven to finish cooking.  For my version, I quickly grilled the steaks instead of a pan sear on a hotter-than-hot grill to make the marks, then let the steaks come to room temperature as we served our guests their first courses.  To finish the cooking, I brushed on a homemade Mandarin style barbeque sauce then placed the meat into a 350-degree oven for around fifteen minutes for an evenly pink medium rare.  It is key to let the steaks rest for a few minutes before you serve or slice them.  I sliced mine and placed the perfectly pink strips on a pan-seared noodle cake with mixed stir-fried vegetables.

Pan-fried noodles are an underrated side dish.  They hold their crunch even with a hot sauce, offer a nice starch to any meal, and are perfect in any type of Pan-Asian themed menu.  Since the noodles were one of the many items that missed our master shopping list, we sent Gordon out on a last minute grocery run.  We carefully instructed him to buy Japanese style fresh, thinly sliced noodles from the deli section.  He came back with dried vermicelli style Japanese noodles that were tied in small round bunches.  Quinty and I tried to hide our disappointment but he said that it was all he could find.  We were in Hamilton, Montana.  As any good cook knows, you have to work with what you have so I went for it and boiled up a few bunches, drained them and quickly twirled them into individual cakes before the starch set.  As I was frying one up as a test, I began running a few alternative rice dishes in my head, just in case.  Once the noodle patty finished cooking, I picked up the piping hot cake in my hand and broke it open to see the crunchy outsides displaying the moister noodle in between.  It was a perfect combination of crunch and softness and after a smattering of crunchy salt; it was the best pan fried noodle I have ever made, hands down.  I walked over to Gordon, gave him a big hug for his genius mistake and now only recommend the dried, bundled up Japanese noodles that you can find on any grocery shelf.


The mixed stir-fried vegetable added the needed color on the plate and a bit of sauce to compliment the noodle cake.  You can use a variety of mixed vegetables or just choose one like green beans, asparagus or broccoli.  I liked the variety for this meal because of the color and since we were in the height of summer, why not?  Quickly stir fry these vegetables, adding in the harder ones first then steaming them periodically by pouring in a side sauce of chicken stock, rice wine, soy sauce and various Chinese condiments like black bean-garlic and oyster sauce.  I think a few teaspoons of minced fresh ginger sautéed along with the harder vegetables is always a must.  At the end, pour a bit more of the sauce into the vegetables and finish it off with a few drops of a cornstarch slurry (an equal mixture of cornstarch and water) to create a sauce-like consistency.

“Mom, you have to make the Coconut Sorbet with Cherry Soup for one of the dinners,” Katie thoughtfully suggested as I was struggling to create my menus for each night.  “That rummy coconut ice accents the spiced Bing cherry soup so perfectly,” Katie reminded me.  She was right, and I knew Quinty’s friend’s raspberry bushes would be bursting with ripe fruit which would top this dish with that needed tart/sweet addition.  Coconut is Asian, isn’t it??  Katie won and her favorite dessert became the Asian finish to our first dinner of our first Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series.

Four dinners later, even I admitted I was a bit pooped.  It was the late nights—so hard to not pour ourselves another glass of wine as we enjoyed reminiscing about the evening into the wee hours of the morning in Quinty’s hammocks off the bedroom deck. Then we had to get up early to start all over again, three more times.  It almost felt like Bill Murray’s version of Ground Hog’s Day with the alarm clock waking us to the same music each morning.  Thank God for Charlie and his help on two of the four dinners.  We barely had time for a walk, a yoga class or cup of coffee at their local hangout; most of my time was spent in the kitchen and Quinty’s in the laundry room and next to the sink washing more wine glasses for that night’s sixteen guests.


We are doing it differently next year.  Instead of having four consecutive dinners, we will have a day of rest in between to give us a chance to do a bike ride or swim in the lake. We can do a bit of prep each day and have extra time to relax.  That small adjustment will make the Bitterroot International Dinner Series a complete joy for us.

So now Quinty, it is time to start dreaming about our guests taking a bite of that perfect dish as they smile and say, “Girls—you have outdone yourselves.”


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A Special Bridal Shower Menu for Ryan

This menu is perfect for a buffet. No need to do all the appetizers but if you have the time, why not. Grab a few of your girlfriends and have a cooking party like Beth and I do!


Beth is more than a good friend; she is my cooking partner.  When she is helping me cook, she creates a perfect mise en place of ingredients for me so all I have to do is make the dish, like a real chef.  You see, she went to culinary school and knows this stuff.  This is a big gift, since most times it is harder to delegate jobs in the kitchen than to just do them yourself.  Beth naturally knows what needs to be done and if she does not, she knows exactly what to ask to complete the task at hand.  “What’s the menu?”, “where can I be of most help?” and “how big should the dice be?” are our favorite kitchen conversations.  We both know the kitchen edicate; if I am in her kitchen, she is boss and if Beth is in mine, I am.                     

It is impossible to count how many meals we have cooked together.  We have raised our children together during summers in Tahoe when our husbands were at home holding court.  We would cook together for our seven children, our girlfriends, and their children before our nightly bear walk.  We’ve hosted our family members’ birthdays, holiday celebrations, graduations,  horse shoe tournaments, and housewarmings.  We are now faced with a gaggle of wedding related celebrations for  family members and close friends, starting with my nephew Nick and now Beth’s oldest daughter, Ryan.                     


Ryan is marrying Tim, and of course, we are all estastic.  As soon as Beth called me to announce Ryan and Tim’s engagement, I emailed Ryan to say I wanted to do the engagement party.                     


The party was a huge success and the menu was wonderful.  Ryan’s grandmother, Barbara, said it was one of the best parties she has ever been to.  Now THAT is a compliment!  I had hoped to blog the four-course menu including a lobster risotto with marscapone and peppered filet with horseradish cream but the party occured in my lost spring when I missed out on writing any posts.                     

My husband  has known Eric, Beth’s husband, since they were in second grade.  David actually came over to Beth and Eric’s home with his friend John when Beth was in labor with Ryan.  They were looking for a fun time in Reno while Beth was hoping to get the whole labor thing over with.  The next day they all celebrated the new arrival, David and John with less money in their pocket.  I met Ryan soon after my husband and I met in college and am  lucky enough to become part of their village, or a posse as Beth’s husband calls it.  You know it takes a village/posse to raise a family and I am lucky to be part of theirs.                     

When Beth said she would be doing the food for the bridal showers the sisters were giving Ryan, I made sure to be her sous.  “Okay,” Beth said, “we better get going on deciding the menu then.”  Here is what we came up with:                      


A Special Middle Eastern Menu for Ryan’s
Bourbon and Boudoir
July 9, 2011                     

With Mint Julips and Conversation                     

Red Pepper Feta, Baba Ganoush and Olive-Tuna Tapenade
with Toasted Lavash Chips                     

Spring Vegetables with a Moroccan Rouille                     

Charmoula Ahi Tartar on Homemade Potato Chips                     

Amuse Bouche                     

Tomato Gazpacho Shooters                     

Dinner Buffet                     

Grilled Cornish Game Hens in a Sumac and Lemon Marinade
with a Date Salsa                     

Paprika Spiked Beef Tenderloin with Eggplant in a Star Anise-Cumin Coconut Broth                     

Turmeric Scented Couscous with Garbanzo Beans and Grilled Zucchini                     

Moroccan Carrots with Raisins                     

Balkan Crab Salad with Walnut and Lemon Mayonnaise                     

Fennel and Orange Salad with Kalamata Olives                     


Chocolate Mousse Torte with Raspberry Sauce and Fresh Raspberries     

(Click on the hyperlink to view the recipe)                  


Beth knew she wanted to make her sumac and lemon marinated game hens with date relish and I applauded her for the choice.  That recipe has  become one of my favorites and even Beth approves of the changes I made to the original recipe (see recipe for details).  With the Middle Eastern theme developing it was easy to choose the appetizers.                     


One of our go-to appetizers for any cuisine are the trio of dips here: Roased Red Pepper Feta, Baba Ganoush and Hummus.  For a Middle Eastern buffet, these dips are completely in theme.                     


While the Olive-Tuna Tapenade is more Italian than Middle Eastern, I doubt anyone is noticing.                     


My traditional Ahi Tuna Tartar is definitely Asian so I added Joyce Goldstien’s version of a Charmoula Vinaigrette to the tuna and topped the tartar on a waffle cut potato chip instead of a wonton chip for a more Middle Eastern flair.  They were a huge hit.                     


Beth believes she has single handedly brought the vegetable platter back into fashion and I tend to agree, at least within our group of friends.  What sets off our platter is seasoning each blanched vegetable with salt and a touch of olive oil to make them shine and enhance their flavor.  She normally serves the vegetables with a taragon aoili but to make it a bit more Mediterranean, we made a Rouille instead.  Who needs vegetables for this dish; all Beth’s sister Angie needed to enjoy the rouille was a spoon.                     


To add a little festive touch we passed around our amuse bouche: Gazpacho Shooters with Mini Croutons.  Beth and I took my traditional Spanish tomato gazpacho, placed the soup in a tall shot glass, added mini croutons and served them with a little spoon.  The spoon is really not necessary but most of us wanted to get every last drop and be lady-like about it.                     


While I loved Beth’s idea of the cornish game hens with the date relish, I was a bit hesitant about grilling fifteen birds last minute for a buffet.  “Eric will do it early in the day and we will just reheat them,” Beth said confidently.  The idea of reheating already perfectly barbequed birds did not sound right to me, but I was wrong.  Eric cooked those birds until they were “just a bit” underdone.  He handed me his perfectly underdone hens and said, “Pop them in the oven at 450 degrees for 5 minutes, no longer,” and was then off to play golf to avoid his soon-to-be estrogen infused home.  The hens came out of the oven with the skin crisp and the meat succulent.  Eric’s barbeque skills rose a few knotches for me that day while I learned a new make-ahead technique that is truly perfect for a large group.                     


The reason why I love this dish so much is the date relish.  Like Angie, I do not need the chicken to enjoy this condiment–just give me a spoon.  This original recipe calls for parsley and pine nuts but I substituted cilantro and walnuts.  Not only did that addition make it more Middle Eastern, it gave the relish more flavor.  Try it either way, just try it.                     


Next we needed to find some sort of tagine that would go with our sides and compliment the chicken entree.  What about the Paprika Spiked Beef Tenderloin with Eggplant from my “Out of my Comfort Zone” post ??  This dish is full of exotic flavors including ginger, lime, toasted cumin, star anise, paprika and coconut milk.  This traditional Puerto Rican recipe gets a nuevo twist from Eric Rupert: he uses lightly seared filet mignon instead of stewed meat which gives this dish a sophisticated feel while still being homey.  “But the dish is not Middle Eastern,” Beth said.  “No one will notice!” I retaliated.  And I was right–all we got were compliments.                     


The game hen recipe came with a dish of quinoa with garbanzo beans and grilled zucchini which both Beth and I love and make often, yet Ryan is not a big quinoa lover.  It occurred to me that we could make that dish and replace the grain with my wonderful steamed couscous that Charles Perry taught me.  I thought we could bring in the flavor of the tumeric-scented broth by adding onions sauteed with olive oil and the spices but Beth had a better idea.  Why not make a spiced infused broth and use that in place of the water for steaming the couscous?  Brilliant!!  We threw in some grilled onions for good measure and had a wonderful side to soak up the sauce for the meat and marry with the chicken and date salsa.                     


With the farmer’s market brimming with all types of carrots, Charles Perry’s Moroccan Carrots with Raisin and Parsley would be an easy yet scrumptious vegetable side.  Charles cooked his carrots whole then sliced them to the appropriate size but steaming them already sliced is definitely easier.  Make sure to save the raisin-plumping liquid since reducing the raisin water to a glaze and adding it to the vinegar creates the perfect sweet and sour combination.   You can click here to read my Charles Perry Post and learn more about him.              


All we need now is a salad and fish dish to round out the assortment of dishes we already have for the buffett.  I started searching through Joyce Goldstein’s Mediterranean cookbooks for ideas.  This crab salad recipe struck my fancy since it not only included salad and fish but asparagus and steamed potatoes, which added another starch and vegetable to our table.  This crab salad with lemon and walnut aoili intreged me further because I love a mayonnaise made with walnut oil and extra lemon.  I also knew I would love the crunch of the toasted walnuts.  I made this dish as a trial for my husband’s birthday and both Beth and I gave it a big thumbs up.  I changed the recipe around a bit, dressing the individual vegetables with a bit of the aoili thinned with a few tablespoons of lemon juice.  The finished salad with potatoes on one side, the asparagus on the other, the watercress in the middle topped with the cucumber studded crab salad and toasted walnuts was truly a thing of beauty, worthy of any buffet table.                     


I would have been happy to stop there but Beth knew the menu needed a bit of fresh fruit as a palate cleaner.  This salad was originally sliced oranges with olives simply dressed with reduced orange juice and olive oil but Beth added the fennel to give the dish a bit of an anise crunch.  It was a great compliment to the overall menu, beautiful color contrast to the other dishes, easy to make and delicious.  You are right again, Beth.                     


What could be better than ending the meal with a bit of light and fluffy chocolate with a crunchy chocolate cookie crust topped with cool whipped cream?  This chocolate mousse torte is always good for a crowd because it can easily feed sixteen.  This dessert can even be made a few days ahead and I have been known to made the cake a few weeks ahead and freeze it well wrapped without the whipped cream.   


Beth is not only a good friend and cooking partner but knows how to treat a friend right.  When we are in Tahoe we meet at our pond at 5 pm for a little rest and relaxation and she always comes with a cocktail for me.  We play cribbage and this summer I let her win to make sure she keeps those cocktails coming.  Carrying two cocktails, her beach bag and chair have been a bit difficult so she has taken to leaving her chair at the pond, hidden in the bushes.  This year, we got an email from our Tahoe neighborhood association the day we got home asking the homeowners to take their paraphenaila home from our community pond at the end of the day.  I immediately emailed her, letting her know we were busted. “No worries,” she said, “now that you are gone I can easily carry all of my goodies to the pond, since I am only bringing one cocktail,” and sent me a pictures to prove it.  But what are we going to do next year?  Maybe we should find a better hiding place.         



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A Special “Easy” Menu to Celebrate the Bounty of Summer

Enjoy this simple summer-inspired menu for your family.

How can it be that I missed spring and it’s already getting deep into summer??  I cooked a season full of wonderful spring menus, took many pictures to document the bounty of this season, and then the months slipped away while I didn’t have the luxury of posting a few blogs.  No need to cry over spilled milk–summer might offer me a few moments of extra time to record my adventures in the kitchen.

I started this blog post in April highlighting another one of my family’s favorite meals and still think it is appropriate at this time of year. It includes many of the farmers market’s darlings of the season: tomatoes, blueberries, basil, green beans and carrots.  The menu includes chicken picatta, a quick sauté that fits into my summer schedule, and a basil pesto pasta that is a cinch to put together.  I always include a caprese salad with this meal because the balsamic vinegar and olive oil marries perfectly with the pesto.  Green beans and carrots are delicious in the summer, add color to the overall plate and offer nutritional balance to this meal.   A blueberry buckle is an excellent dessert option with local blueberries available at all of our farmers markets and supermarkets.  I just made this recipe for my dear friends, Jim and Julia, and Julia hoped I would post this recipe soon.  For you Julia, of course!

A Special Easy Menu to Celebrate the Bounty of Summer

Chicken Picatta

Basil Pesto Pasta

Green Beans and Carrots and Caprese Salad

Blueberry Buckle

Chicken Picatta is a classic example of a quick sauté with a simple pan sauce and now with many butchers slicing scaloppini of chicken, it is quick to make.  My kids love a sauce and actually think meat on its own is not a complete dish.  I tend to agree.  Many new cooks find making a sauce difficult, requiring hours of time and complicated techniques to conquer.  For this dish, I use purchased chicken broth and a bit of flour to create a sauce that is good enough to lick off your plate over (at least my children think so), AND it is easy.  You can also substitute scaloppini of veal or turkey instead of the chicken.

The trick to a quick sauté with a pan sauce is to quickly sear the floured meat in a combination of olive oil and butter (but I normally use just olive oil) until almost done.  After you take the meat out of the pan, add a few chopped shallots and sauté, stirring up any fond that was left from the meat.  Then douse the shallots with some white wine or vermouth and reduce until almost gone.  Add the broth and reduce until it tastes good.  Remember to taste your food; if the sauce still tastes like raw wine and chicken soup, you need to reduce the sauce more.  Once the sauce has flavor, add the chicken back in the pan to finish cooking.  The flour on the meat will help thicken the sauce, but this is a sauce, not a gravy, so it should be thinner.  All you need to do is add the finishing touches to make it a picatta sauce: the capers and a squirt of lemon.  This is the basic technique for all pan sauces and once you perfect this dish, you will feel confident to make other pan sauces with other meats such as a duck breast, pork chop or filet mignon.

My trick to making a good pesto is blanching the basil before making it.  Basil oxidizes quickly once it is cut and I have become shocked when my basil pesto pasta turned black before I even had a chance to bring it to the table.  If you blanch the basil and refresh the leaves in ice water before you process them with the garlic, cheese, nuts and olive oil, your pesto will stay brilliant green even when you don’t cover the leftovers with oil to seal in the cut basil.  Beside that tip, making pesto is a breeze; just remember to save a bit of the pasta cooking water to finish the sauce.  The starchy pasta water is the perfect thinning agent but I have used cream for a richer sauce if you are in the mood for that.

Many of my menus include more vegetables and side dishes than meat and that is the way I like it.  If you have a meat with a nice pan sauce, I recommend to keep your vegetables simple.  Here I offer a classic vegetable technique preferred by Thomas Keller in his French Laundry Cookbook: Big-Pot Blanching.  You perfectly cook your vegetables in a copious amount of water in an attempt to keep the water still boiling when you add the vegetables to the water.  After the green beans and carrots are cooked, I simply dress to perfection with olive oil and a touch of salt.

I ALWAYS make tomato-mozzarella salad for chicken picatta and basil pesto pasta, even in winter.  When tomatoes are not in my garden or in my local farmers market, I get the clamshell campari style tomato.  They are grown hydroponically but with my trick, you can make these watery tomatoes taste fine for this salad.  I bring out the flavor by letting the sliced, salted tomatoes drain on paper towels for at least a half an hour.  I even give them a sprinkling of sugar along with the salt to imitate the sweet summer tomato.  My recommendation though is to make this dish in summer when there is no need to doctor up Mother Nature.

The only thing I need to say about the blueberry buckle is to make it; it will become one of your staple recipes.  Julia, enjoy the buckle and let me know how it came out.

Spring held many dinner parties, cooking events and family meals that were worth documenting.  The events included Ryan’s engagement party, the Woodside Priory cooking class, HIP Housing appetizer cooking demo with Stephanie Lucas, Anna’s graduation party in Walla Walla (truly an experience cooking for 50 people in the small kitchen of the unofficial Delta Gamma house, “The Zoo,”–see above picture), Katie’s high school graduation party and  for Jeannie’s 50th birthday, a cooking class for her friends and their daughters at the beach.  The summer season has already included my husband’s birthday, Cynthia’s 85th birthday at the beach and 4th of July at Lake Tahoe.  I just might have to do another year-end style post telling you about all the missing posts throughout the first half of the year.  Keep “posted.”

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Artic Char

Give Artic Char a try. It is a great substitute for salmon when it is out of season. It is also known for being one of the most ecologically friendly farmed fish.

A Special Dinner to Celebrate Artic Char!

Date Salad with Manchego and Toasted Hazelnuts in a Sherry-Honey Vinaigrette


Herb Crusted Artic Char with Herbed Vinaigrette on Wilted Greens

Farro Risotto with Fennel and Radicchio

Mixed Berries with Sabayon

Move over octopus, Artic char is n