Monday, October 10, 2011

Love Autumnal

Ryan and I got married one year ago today! Fall is my favorite time of year, and we found a lot of inspiration in the season for our wedding. So in honor of our first anniversary, I took a look back at some of the fall flavors, colors, and details that we incorporated into our big day. 

We held our wedding at the magnificent Columbus Park Refectory, an off-the-beaten-path Chicago Park District venue located on the city's West Side. The ceremony was in the covered outdoor pavilion that overlooked a lagoon. With dramatic arched windows on three sides of the building, the surrounding trees provided a natural fall color palette of red, orange, yellow, and green. 

Anticipating cool weather, the plan was to warm up our guests with some hot apple cider before the ceremony. I never dreamed temps would reach the 80s, but they did, so we served it chilled instead. (While I was ecstatic that everyone would feel comfortable outside, I was mildly disappointed that it was too warm to wear this cozy red crocheted shrug I had bought on Etsy.) 

The ceremony felt very mystical and romantic! Golden late-afternoon light streamed through the pavilion and cast a warm glow all around. Many guests later told us that right before the ceremony began, a swirl of sun-dappled leaves blew right in the spot where we would marry. That is a moment I truly wish I had seen.

Ryan breaks the glass. Mazel tov!

Apple season peaks in October in the Midwest, so we decided to use the fruit as both centerpieces and party favors. About a week before the wedding, I went apple picking with my mom, sister, and future mother-in-law. We picked hundreds of apples (and rewarded our hard work by indulging in some amazing cider doughnuts).

The empire apples, placed in dark woven baskets on each table, added of a splash of red to the dining room. Since the space already had such distinctive colors and decor - with its Spanish-influenced style of dark wood beams, arched windows, and ornate chandeliers - we kept everything else neutral to let the unique details of the room shine through.

We invited guests to take some apples home with them in these little brown bags with hand stamped labels.

The entire apple project turned out to be quite the logistically intensive DIY undertaking - and only one that I recommend if you have your heart set on the idea like I did! - so I was gratified to see our guests, like my 4-year-old nephew, enjoying them. 

I wanted everyone to share a meal together that was as seasonal and local as possible. While our catering choices were limited to the CPD's preferred vendor list, our caterer sourced some of the food from Michigan and worked with us to develop a fall-inspired meal. We featured the menu on chalkboard-painted wooden wine crates at the place card table, where the florist added some gourds, flowers, and leftover apples to create a harvest theme. 

Dessert was a no-brainer. Every Thanksgiving, Ryan makes pumpkin pies from scratch, and I looooove apple pie (especially a la mode). We offered those two choices with a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream from this local favorite pie shop.

The kids were all over the dessert table.

But getting back to the apples, they even made their way into our ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract). Ryan's second cousin, a budding artist, drew a tree with 10 red apples to represent our unforgettable wedding date - 10.10.10. Emily pulled it all together with a precious handmade border and designed the tree along a river of our vows that Ryan and I wrote together. Which brings me to the other inspiration for our wedding.

Paddling. Ryan and I first met when I signed up for one of his kayak classes on the Chicago River. Our huppah poles were four hand carved Greenland kayak paddles.

We chose the Columbus Park Refectory because it overlooks two lagoons in the park (originally, we wanted to offer our guests the option of going canoeing but alas, that didn't work out). Our invitations featured paddles, too, and I even walked down the aisle to one of my favorite folk songs, The Water is Wide, while Ryan waited to become my husband.

A poem about autumn and love that a friend read during the ceremony probably best summed up the spirit of our fall-inspired wedding day.

Love Autumnal
By Oliver Jenkins

My love will come in autumn-time
When leaves go spinning to the ground
And wistful stars in heaven chime
With the leaves' sound

Then, we shall walk through dusty lanes
And pause beneath low-hanging boughs,
And there, while soft-hued beauty reigns
We'll make our vows

Let others seek in spring for sighs
When love flames forth from every seed;
But love that blooms when nature dies
Is love indeed

(All photos by the effervescent Candice Cusic and her brave assistant Justin, who showed no fear during the hora.)

Friday, July 29, 2011


On the rare but special occasions that some of my closest girlfriends get together--all of us from hither and yonder--we carry on a tradition that started a decade ago when we went on the first of many all-girls ski trips.

And that's breakfast.

What is such a routine event in our daily lives becomes a meaningful experience of sharing a meal and starting our day together.

Our breakfasts are neither out of the ordinary nor elaborate. There are no fancy omelettes or fluffy pancakes. Rather we feast on simple but nourishing foods that energize us for the day ahead.

But more than the meal, it's the familiar act of making breakfast that we love.

Like a well-choreographed dance, everyone descends on the kitchen, pulling out cereal boxes, milk, yogurt, and fruit. Deals are made to split bagels, scrambled eggs, and bananas. Someone takes the coffee order while another pulls out plates, silverware, glasses, mugs, and napkins.

Somehow all the food ends up on the counter. When everything is ready, the breakfasting commences.

Cereals are mixed. Milk is poured. Bagels are buttered. Plates are filled. By the time each of us assembles our meal, it might take a good 2-3 trips to get all of it to the table.

Once we are there, both savoring the food and the company, conversation turns to the day ahead, the night before, or some other topic that's probably inappropriate for this blog. There are second helpings and refills and last calls for toasted bread products. We linger a little more.

And then dishes get cleared and washed, food is put away, and bathroom doors slam shut. Those are the beats and rhythms of our breakfasts together. They never change, no matter where we are.

We've done this so many times that we are in harmony. It is effortless to pull this meal together.

We had such a reunion last weekend in Montana, in Ali's new home. It's comforting to know that no matter how far we live from one another, breakfast will always be there to bring us together.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thanks, Food News Journal!

Every morning, I start off my day with a cup of coffee and Food News Journal, a daily email of well-curated food links from across the Internets. Yesterday I was honored to see that FNJ featured my blog post Remembering Grandma in the Best of the Blogs section.

Thanks for including me, FNJ!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Remembering Grandma

The last time I saw Grandma Shirley was 20 years ago. I was a teenager when she passed away--old enough to remember how her fine silver hair framed her elegant features, the bright pink smile she painted on with a tube of lipstick after meals, and how she called me Darling, but too young to have nothing more than fragmented memories of our time together.

The family cookbook that Ryan and I received as a wedding gift has helped to piece some of those memories back together. Ryan and I often find ourselves paging through it to look more at the pictures than the recipes. We start to reminisce about the relatives whom the other has never met, and never will, and before long, some forgotten memory comes out that hasn't been thought of in years.

One thing I recalled about Grandma Shirley, for example, was her glamour. You can tell by the pictures in the book: Grandma in front of the Eiffel Tower, Grandma in red-sequined evening wear, oh, and there's Grandma sitting in between her totally unstylish granddaughters (that's Angie in her band-aid-mending-broken-heart sweatshirt, which I'm sorry to say became a hand-me-down, and me in some snazzy unicorn overalls and wearing barrettes with ribbons cascading in my hair).

I've also thought more about her in the context of food. Frankly, there are no recipes from Grandma Shirley in the book, which makes sense because I remember more about the catered parties she threw than meals she cooked.

I should say here that my mom has told me that Grandma Shirley was a great cook, and I even saw evidence of this when I found her dog-eared copy of The Settlement Cookbook, a popular collection of recipes for Jewish immigrants, last year as we cleaned out their apartment after my grandpa passed away.

In fact, I remember one tasty snack that she made in her white-tiled sun-filled kitchen, hamburger sliders. She'd pop two of them in the toaster oven at a time as I waited, so antsy for the toaster to ding that as soon as it did, I opened the oven door and with a squirt of ketchup on top, shoveled the salty open-faced patties in my mouth, ready for two more.

While I am so lucky to have my other grandma still with me, the ageless Grandma Pearl, Ryan only has his memories to go on. When we had a crazy blizzard this winter (yes, THE blizzard in Chicago that gave me an excused absence from work and created absolute chaos on Lake Shore Drive), he wanted to make a favorite recipe from his childhood. A recipe from his Grandma Inez, who lived in rural Michigan and, rather unconventionally, owned a bar in town but still had time to bake.

As the wind howled and the thundersnow thundered, Ryan and I hunkered down in the kitchen and channeled Grandma Inez and her cookies (prefaced in the cookbook as "a sure fire way to melt Ryan's heart").

Heretofore known as Grandma Cookies, these pillowy, chewy mounds of oatmeal raisin were there at the beginning of Ryan's visits to her home, and gone by the time he left. And when Grandma Inez visited Ryan's family, Grandma Cookies came with her, only to disappear (usually in Ryan's belly), by the time she went home.

We made about 5 dozen cookies that night and probably ate close to three quarters of them, only saving the remaining ones to fortify ourselves for some serious shoveling the next day. And while we had to tinker with the recipe a bit, mainly to keep them in the oven much longer than the recipe called for, I saw a deeply satisfied look on Ryan's face.

But after we had eaten probably half the batch, he suddenly grew quiet and said something heartbreaking. He said that with every cookie he ate, the taste of his grandma's cookies faded more and more.

That is a risk we take when we make the recipes of those who are no longer with us. Can they ever truly taste the same as they did at Grandma's? I don't think so. I know that I could never recreate those hamburger sliders. I don't even remember exactly what they tasted like, just that they were so good and only Grandma could make them that way.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to make our family recipes because they couldn't possibly taste the same. Just the opposite in fact. If the trade off is that making an old family recipe helps us to remember those who are no longer with us, I'm willing to take that risk.

Grandma Cookies

2 cups raisins
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
4 eggs
4 cups oatmeal
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup water

Put the raisins in a pan and cover with one cup of boiling water (or slightly more). Let raisins sit in the water until the remaining ingredients are ready. Separately, cream together the sugar and the shortening. Then add in the eggs, oatmeal, flour, baking soda, salt, and vanilla. Stir together and then add the raisins and water. Drop a tablespoon of the batter on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 until the cookies are lightly brown and almost firm when pressed in the center (about 6-9 minutes; then rotate the sheet for another 6-9 minutes for even browning).

Makes 5 dozen and a happy husband!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Way to a Man's Heart

There were many upsides to delaying our honeymoon to Belize until the week between Christmas and New Years. For one, and this was big, my office was closed so I only had to take two vacation days for a 12-day trip. And while I don't much mind the snow and cold weather, it was nice to head south for a bit before the long Chicago winter settled into our bones.

But the best part was simply having the energy to enjoy the trip. If we had gone right after the wedding, I would have been too exhausted to do anything, and we like to be active when we travel.

For instance, one of my favorite things to do in Belize was to sip coffee and eat a soul-satisfying breakfast of fresh papaya and granola with yogurt and gaze at the toucans, like the one pictured above, flying by as the sun rose gently above the mountains. It was tiring, I tell you.

We also drank many Belikin beers. Lifting a Belikin is hard work. The glass bottles are about twice as heavy as American beer bottles, so we had to give ourselves a break sometimes by ordering margaritas. And napping on hammocks. Sometimes we did both at once.

But while we made sure to relax, there was too much to experience in Belize to sit around for long. Aside from bird watching (which really does take a surprising amount of mental energy) and Belikin lifting, we snorkeled in the world's second largest barrier reef, canoed past orange iguanas, hiked in a jaguar preserve, learned how to spot wildlife in the dark, biked the rocky dirt road through a Garifuna village, and explored Mayan ruins on foot and in caves.

We also received the warm hospitality and kindness of the Belizean people. Seriously, we met this one man at a bus stop who gave us his phone number and email address and told us to contact him if we needed anything.

Those were all the upsides. The downside, though, was that we missed Christmas with Ryan's family, and their annual gift exchange and dinner. Although I don't celebrate the holiday, we participate in each other's traditions. So it was a big deal to miss Christmas, and we had to make up for it.

After the trip, we hosted Christmas dinner at our place for Ryan's parents and his aunt and uncle. The occasion presented a nice opportunity to mix our traditions. We made brisket, a recipe that shows up at many a Jewish holiday meal, and used my sister's mother-in-law's recipe from the family cookbook that we received as a wedding gift.

My ancestors, who came from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, probably served brisket at their own special occasions. When winter came, around the time of Hanukkah, families often slaughtered their cows rather than bear the cost of feeding them until spring. The brisket, which comes from the lower chest of a cow, was also a cheaper cut of meat.

This is all according to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, which inspired me to dig up my Grandma Shirley's well worn copy of The Settlement Cook Book that I found on the shelves of my grandfather's kitchen after he passed away last year. The book was first published in 1901 with recipes for Jewish immigrants who settled in the United States. I laughed out loud when I saw the cover which, in a sign of the times, proclaims that these recipes are "The Way to a Man's Heart."

The book includes three different brisket recipes with beans, cabbage, and sauerkraut, which advise: "Place [brisket] in large kettle of cold water" and "Boil until tender." This made more sense when my Grandma Pearl reminded me, "Oh honey, we didn't have ovens back then." The broth might have some brown sugar, molasses, or mustard added to it for sweetness, or vinegar for some sour flavor.

The use of ovens ushered in a new era for brisket, which could now be slow cooked for hours in a sauce to tenderize the tough connective tissue in this cut of meat. Old World flavors were replaced by an Americanized sauce of "foods" like ketchup, chile sauce, and onion soup mix.

I know, it sounds disgusting. But it's not. The brisket was well received by Ryan's family, and by then we were calling it a chrisket (a Christmas brisket), and defining a new tradition of our own.

As for whether brisket is the way to a man's heart, stayed tuned for the next recipe we made out of the family cookbook, which is for sure the way to MY man's heart.

Happy Valentines Day, all.

Grandma Joanie's Brisket

1 brisket
1 cup orange juice
1 cup ketchup
1 cup applesauce
1 packet onion soup mix

Stir oj, ketchup, applesauce, and onion soup mix together and pour over brisket. Add chopped potatoes, carrots, onions--any root vegetable will work. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 for at least 4 hours. Cool, remove remaining fat, and slice against the grain.

We made the brisket the night before and refrigerated until about two hours before serving, when we sliced it (against the grain--this is critical!) and heated it up in the oven at about 200. An hour would have been enough time to heat up our brisket; it was a tad dried out but still had plenty of flavor.


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