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A health-focused guide to cleansing.

I’ve been doing a great deal of purging lately. Winter’s long-sleeved tops and bulky wool sweaters are being shed in favor of lighter cottons and linen fabrics. And thinning out my wardrobe has led to the rest of the house. Old magazines are being hauled to the recycling bin and I’m carting books off to Half Price. Pantry shelves will also get their annual deep clean. Even my Facebook friends list is taking a hit. Nothing is free from my wrath.

So it’s no surprise that I’m beginning to wonder if my body wouldn’t also benefit from a bit of a cleanse as well.

I start each day with three or four cups of coffee, I’ve never met a dessert I didn’t like and with all of the restaurant dining I do for work, I eat really good quality food, although I consume my fair share of fat and calories — and probably a bit of everyone else’s as well. Add to that hearty, rib-sticking dishes whipped up on cold winter nights, typical holiday binging and my two-week trip to Spain with its ham-heavy diet, and the beach vacation on the calendar with its requisite bikinis is beginning to look ominously close and panic is setting in.

But when I say “cleanse,” I certainly don’t mean one of those insane “drink gobs of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, lose 25 pounds in a week” types of nonsense I see splashed on the web and on the cover of almost every tabloid. I’ve gleaned enough about nutrition over the years to know that quick fix “plans” aren’t based on real science at all. They’re simply stopgap measures that can be seriously detrimental to your health. What I’m talking about as far as cleansing is lighter eating — less meat, more fruits and vegetables — with maybe a bit of a jumpstart at the beginning.

Jennifer Kagy, a locally based certified holistic health and nutrition coach totally agrees. I checked in with Kagy to make sure I was on the right path before starting my cleanse. (Calling your doctor or a nutritionist is something you should do if you’re planning any major diet or exercise change.) I wanted to get her feedback on the idea of cleanses in general — after all, since they are everywhere, maybe there’s something good about them I don’t know about — as well as some ideas to “clean-up” my own eating plan. It turns out I was spot on as far as nutrition, but did have a few things to learn.

“As far as those types of so-called ‘Master Cleanses’ go, they’re crazy and nonsensical,” Kagy says. “Those things are really not good for you. You get nothing [nutritionally] from them and when you’re done, you go back to eating crap. And, not only do they offer you nothing nutritionally, they also strip your body of good things.”

Kagy, who subscribes to the concept of enacting meaningful, manageable and permanent lifestyle changes, suggests that, “If you really feel as if you need to cleanse and want to do just one thing, get up in the morning and drink one glass of room-temperature water and do a shot of two tablespoons organic, cold-pressed olive oil with the juice of half an organic lemon. This flushes out all of the toxins from your liver, gets your bowels moving and helps to cleanse your lymphatic system.” She also suggests drinking a lot of warm water in general, as most people are dehydrated and don’t even know it.

For those who feel that they’re game for an even bigger commitment, Kagy suggests the program put together by Dr. Mark Hyman, a general practitioner located in Massachusetts, and television doctor Mehmet Oz. Dr. Hyman and Dr. Oz created a three day detox cleanse based on whole foods that feed your body the nutrition it needs while supporting your organs. It claims to: “Reset your hormones and detoxify your body.”

There are no processed foods allowed and caffeine and sugar are no-nos as well. The plan consists of ingredients that are affordable, available in any grocery store and features nut butters, plant-based shakes, green tea, vitamin supplements and, my favorite part, an evening bath laced with lavender oil. I’m not quite sure if that’s a worthy replacement for my coffee addiction, but for three days and a healthier me, I’m willing to try almost anything.

While I’ve never been much of a breakfast eater unless I’m on vacation, I do agree with the notion that it’s important to start the day with some nutrition other than my daily jolt of caffeine. The cleanse recommended by nutritionist Kagy features three different smoothies, and although this particular one is meant to be for dinner, the hearty dose of fresh fruit suits me as more of a morning beverage.

Visit Kagy’s website at jennkagyhealthyme.com and doctoroz.com to find the ingredients and instructions for the “Three Day Detox Cleanse” Kagy recommends.

DETOX CLEANSE SMOOTHIE

INGREDIENTS:
½ cup mango
1 cup blueberries
1 ½ cups coconut water
1 cup kale
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
¼ avocado
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. flax seed

INSTRUCTIONS:
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Drink immediately. Makes one serving.

Expert tips on finding the right food fit.

I was married in the late ‘80s. My wedding gown was an over-the-top, frothy confection replete with poofy sleeves, shoulder pads and a bustle. My mile-high, poodle-permed hair was on point, as were my dagger-like hot pink nails. I was a stunning vision and, in my mind, the producers of Dynasty would be waiting in the wings at the reception to cast me on their show.

To this day I run into people who attended my wedding — they love to regale me with their recollections of that glorious day — but take note: not one of their memories is ever about me, the beautiful bride, it’s always about the food.

While I would love for people to remember what a stunning bride I was, as a chef and caterer, I am ecstatic that after 20-plus years guests still remember the food. Because, take my word for it, not only will people remember if what they ate at your wedding was good, they’ll reallyremember if it was bad — and they’ll talk about it for years to come.

Which leads me to why it’s so important to choose the right caterer for your big day. As a food professional, here are some of my best suggestions to help you find the right fit.

  1. Go with word of mouth. Talk to people. Don’t just ask caterers for their recommendations. Do you think they’re going to have you talk to the folks who didn’t come away happy? Put it out there on Facebook. Tweet it. Ask as many people as you can. Have you been to a wedding where the food was especially good? Talk to the bride and groom and make sure that they were happy with the planning part as well. Was the caterer timely with communication? Did they feel that they received their money’s worth? Were the servers friendly, professional and efficient? These things are just as important as the quality of the food itself.
  2. Think outside the box. You don’t always need to go with a traditional caterer. Chat up the management at your favorite restaurant. After all, you already know that you like what they have to serve. Many of them do outside catering or, if your wedding isn’t large and your choice of venue has a kitchen and allows you to bring in an outside chef, might arrange for one of their sous to cook for you.
  3. Find a caterer who is willing to personalize the menu. When we got married, the only thing my husband-to-be (a Chinese food freak) insisted on was dim sum during the cocktail hour. That, and a really delicious wedding cake. The caterer was happy to oblige and the cake was one of The BonBonerie’s finest: It had alternate layers of carrot cake and opera cream; it was sublime. Personalizing your menu that way is a great way to make your reception your own, and it’s something that no caterer should be unwilling to do. If they’re not enthusiastic about going “off menu” for you, look elsewhere but be willing to pay an up-charge.
  4. Know your budget. This is probably my most important tip. Be forthright and truthful. Nobody likes surprises — be it you or the caterer. He/she needs to know how much you can spend and you need to know what you’re getting for your money. So ask the caterer these very important questions: Is service included? Are linens, dishes, silver and crystal included? Can you provide tables and chairs if necessary and how much are they? May I bring in a cake from an outside bakery and, if so, can you provide an experienced wedding cake cutter? A good caterer wants your event to be just as fabulous as you do. After all, their reputation is on the line. If you’re on a tight budget, ask for suggestions on ways to save money. Oftentimes the caterer is the one who knows where you can pull the belt tight and where it’s imperative to spend.

And here are some more ideas on how to throw a magnificent soiree and cut some costs. First of all, choose a non-traditional day for your wedding such as a Thursday, Friday or Sunday. Florists, bands and, yes, caterers are all waiting around for business on those days. If a Friday night worked for William and Kate, it can work for you. For experienced help on a super tight budget, try calling a local culinary school to see if students are available. And, if you can’t afford to feed your guests dinner, then nix scheduling a whole night; try a champagne toast after the ceremony with a few hors d’oevres and cake. Simple and elegant, yet romantic.

Carriage House Farm embraces a simpler way of life.

Every single day I wake to the sound of an alarm emanating from the iPad on my nightstand. My mornings continue with a barrage of technology: digital calendar reminders, apps to update, emails to peruse and return — a significant amount of human contact has been replaced by Facebook and texting. 

I’m not really complaining. For the most part, modern technology truly is a blessing. It allows me to accomplish huge amounts of work professionally, as well as keep in touch with my family and friends scattered all over the globe. But there is a part of me that, on occasion, longs for simpler times and a slower pace — and I know I’m not alone.

Among my own family and friends, I’ve seen a huge resurgence in the so-called “heirloom crafts” of knitting and sewing, and when it comes to food, our country’s dire economic situation has resurrected the practices of home canning and preserving. Even the health care crisis has caused many to question the connection between what we put in our bodies and how it affects our health. 

There are a lot of buzzwords and phrases flying around in the world of food: organic, farm-to-table, all-natural, cage-free, etc., and many of them aren’t even technically defined. What amuses me is that these are often seen and touted as “new” and “novel” when actually this is the way our food was produced for generations before modern technology saw fit to butt its head in.  

I’d actually prefer that these terms cease to exist, especially farm-to-table, because that simply is the way we should eat. As far as I’m concerned, it’s our responsibility to strive to make sure that the food we consume comes directly from farms and producers using sustainable practices, where humans are respected and paid a fair wage, animals are treated humanely and our food is safe to eat. 

Carriage House Farm in North Bend is one of those places where, to borrow a phrase, “Everything old is new again.” Since 1855 six generations of Richard Stewart’s family have been farming what were once 90 and what is now more than 300 acres in the Miami River Valley. The farm has not only grown in size over the centuries, it has evolved as well — livestock has been replaced by stables and a pasture for boarded horses and the original crops have been swapped for some things that Stewart’s forefathers might not be so familiar with, such as ginger.  

But something Stewart’s ancestors probably would recognize are the foraged, native foods like sumac and elderberries harvested from the land by Carriage House’s Native Plant Specialist Abby Artemisia, and honey from the dozens of hives located on and around the property. The important things haven’t changed. Stewart’s passion for the land and his desire to do things organically, in a sustainable way, is the foundation of the farm. 

Stewart chooses not to grow bulk produce, which would make more money, opting instead for the unique such as heritage strains of corn and the ginger, which he planted for the first time last year.  

“There’s always a quest to do what other people aren’t doing,” he says.

Local chefs are especially fond of Stewart’s high-quality produce, freshly milled grains and honey. Some receive deliveries to their restaurants, while others prefer to visit Stewart or his garden manager Kate Cook directly at the farm or at the Northside Farmers Market, where consumers can purchase these products as well. Stewart is especially proud of his relationship with local chefs and relishes a visit into their kitchens while on deliveries. “I get to see what they’re doing with my food,” he says. “It makes this job fun.”

Chefs Utilizing Carriage House Farm’s Produce

Chef Jose Salazar

The Cincinnatian Hotel & Palace Restaurant  

Chef Salazar can often be found out in the Carriage House fields. “When I come out here I walk away with a new appreciation for my food,” he says. He’s actually working on a program to bring his cooks as well.

Chef Julie Francis 

Nectar

Chef Francis’ super popular Dinner Club Series is an entire dinner (from appetizer to dessert!) focused on a local, seasonal ingredient, like sweet potatoes or tomatoes.

Chef Ryan Santos

Please 

Santos is actually teaming up with Stewart to host his Please dinner club out on the farm. One caveat: everything is cooked over an open fire!

Colder months mean comfort food and foodie films.

For me, the crisp, autumn air means a few things: Scarves come out of storage, flip-flops get shoved to the back of the closet and the outdoor furniture gets put away (except for the grill — I will be outside grilling even when the snow comes up to my knees).  

It also means that more nights than most I feel like staying in, putting on my jammies, lighting a fire and going into hibernation mode. Date night starts to morph from stilettos and reservations into a night with Netflix and whatever I feel like whipping up in the kitchen. Steamy pots of soup, homemade pastas and hearty casseroles replace the salads and quick-fix dishes I threw together when I was anxious to get back outside during the summer. Now, it just feels right to take my time with a glass of wine over a simmering dish or two, and invite a group of friends over to share the goodness. 

As for the entertainment portion of the evening, like most people in the food business (and a lot who aren’t), my favorite movies are food based — not only does food taste good, it makes for fabulous film fodder. Watch these films for yourself, and see if you can spot the common thread of the importance of enjoying the simpler things in life. 

Chocolat 

I love this film. The premise is simple: A woman and her daughter move to a small, staid French village to open up a lovely little chocolate shop and proceed to attempt to win over the villagers with their delectable wares.  “Why, Ilene,” you say, “this should be easy. After all, it’s chocolate they’re pandering, not poison.” Ah, but, life isn’t so simple in the movies. It’s 1959, and it’s Lent. The village is pious and repressed. And the chocolate and the star, the sublime Juliette Binoche as Vianne, are far too sensual and inviting. 

Babette’s Feast  

For those who entertain, or dream of entertaining in the grandest of styles, this is truly the ultimate in food porn.  Two devoutly religious spinster sisters in France have passed up lives of love and wealth only to spend their years in their pastor father’s home. After he dies, a young woman named Babette shows up at their door requesting to be their cook and housekeeper. One day, Babette wins the lottery and decides to cook a fantastical feast for the sisters and the congregation in appreciation for the sisters having treated her so well. The finest crystal, China and linens are purchased, and sumptuous ingredients are brought in from Paris. At first, everyone had agreed that enjoying such a meal would certainly be a great sin of sensual luxury, but as course after course of lavishly prepared delicacies appear, they are transported both emotionally and physically. As the story progresses from dismal to divine, so do the colors of the film itself. C’est magnifique!

Big Night 

My all-time favorite food movie — and a favorite of my chef friends I polled.  Brothers Primo and Secondo are running a failing Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Primo is a brilliant chef who refuses to compromise his authentic Northern Italian cuisine and pander to the tastes of the Americanized palate. Secondo, the business end of the partnership, takes a more “the customer is always right” kind of attitude in hopes of keeping the restaurant afloat. Drama ensues when a supposed friend offers up a famous jazz artist, who will perform for one “big night,” and the brothers prepare for a huge, authentic feast that will gain praise, press and hopefully a vast financial windfall.  Gather friends around the table for a “big night” of your own, and whether it’s a huge feast à la Babette or platters of authentic Italian comfort food, you’re guaranteed a great time. Try this warming, creamy risotto for a starter. Just don’t forget the chocolate for dessert.

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Ingredients:

  • 9 Tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1½ lbs. fresh wild mushrooms, sliced, halved or quartered, depending on size
  • 7 cups chicken stock or broth
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • ¾ cup finely chopped leek (white and pale green parts only)
  • 1¼ cups Arborio rice
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup dry white vermouth
  • ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese plus additional for serving 
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp. butter in a heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a quarter of the mushrooms and sprinkle with salt. Saute mushrooms until they’re tender and begin to brown (3 to 4 minutes). Transfer mushrooms to a medium bowl. 
  2. Working in 3 more batches, repeat with 6 Tbsp. of butter, remaining mushrooms, salt and pepper. Bring 7 cups of chicken broth to simmer in a medium saucepan; keep warm. 
  3. Melt remaining butter with olive oil in a heavy, large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leek, sprinkle with salt and saute until tender (4 to 5 minutes). 
  4. Add rice and increase heat to medium. Stir until edges of rice begin to look translucent (3 to 4 minutes). Add white wine and vermouth and stir until liquid is absorbed (about 1 minute). 
  5. Add  ¾ cup warm chicken broth and stir until almost all broth is absorbed (about 1 minute). Stir in sauteed mushrooms. Continue adding broth by ¾ cup intervals, stirring until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more. 
  6. Stir until rice is tender but still firm to the bite and the risotto is creamy (about 10 minutes). 
  7. Stir in ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Transfer risotto to serving bowl. Pass additional Parmesan cheese alongside, if desired. Serve immediately. Serves 6 as a starter.

Please dining company’s secret dinner club.

I’ve been married to the same person for well over two decades, so I haven’t been in the dating world for quite some time. But I do have a lot of single girlfriends, and I spend a ton of time listening to their trials and tribulations while trying to find that ever-elusive “one.” 

I must admit, there are times when it’s fun to live vicariously through their escapades, but I’ve heard out-and-out horror stories about a particular situation that makes me really glad I don’t ever have to wade into the dating pool again: The First Date.

From what I’ve been able to piece together from my friends, and memories of my own pre-marriage days, this nightmarish occasion still customarily revolves around a meal and is fraught with mental anguish, anxiety and the constant concern that there’s food stuck in your teeth. While I think I’ve got the first two covered with this month’s Her Palate column, the last one is all on you (although I will tell you that Sephora carries a darling, teensy blinged-out purse mirror with a brush on it for just such an occasion).

As a food writer, people are always calling me and emailing me hoping that I’ll have some sort of “secret” dining hot spot for them — a place so clandestine and so fabulous that practically nobody else knows it exists. Well, it’s safe to say that even Ryan Santos’ neighbors don’t know that he’s running one of the best kitchens in town out of his Prospect Hill apartment. It doesn’t get any stealthier than that, does it? 

Santos’ Arts & Lettuce “underground dinner club,” run by his dining company, Please, hosts super intimate/super locally sourced dinners four times a month. According to Santos, “Arts & lettuce allows [me] and friends to play, experiment, push our skills forward and take risks in our tiny, electric apartment kitchen while providing 12 diners a unique dining experience.”

The dinners, mostly advertised on Facebook and by word of mouth, usually sell out within 48 hours of being announced. (To get advance notice, sign up for the Arts & Lettuce dinner series online at pleasetoeatyou.com.) So, why is this type of event my idea of the perfect “Hey, let’s get to know each other” evening? Let me tell you …

That really uncomfortable forced one-on-one conversation aspect is gone. There are 12 people at each Please Arts & Lettuce event, all sitting at a giant communal table (handbuilt by local artists at the Brush Factory), so there’s plenty of light-hearted banter. The table is filled with a combination of strangers, Arts & Lettuce newbies and folks who have attended many times, like Randa Kachef, a patron and friend of Santos’ who can often be counted on to take an empty spot. (She credits the artistic presentation of Santos’ meals to his background as a graphic designer.) So, not only do you get to talk to your potential mate tête-à-tête, you get to see what he/she is like in a social situation. Of course the conversation is most often food and wine related, with a lot of “ooing and ahhing” over dishes such as Fried Spot Prawns, Oyster Gazpacho, and Dry-Aged Hen of the Woods Mushrooms with Uni Cream. One of my personal favorites at the dinner I attended was the Buttermilk Goat Cheese Soup with a bundle of seasonal, edible wildflowers to us as a “brush” to wipe up every last drop. Much classier than licking the bowl.

You don’t ever have to worry about being judged by your date for ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. Arts & Lettuce has one menu, and it’s whatever Santos feels like cooking, or is inspired by when he visits the local farmers markets. Santos has such a symbiotic relationship with the farmers that they often attend the dinners themselves. “We try and source 80 percent or more of what we use from local farms for each dinner, and present the ingredients in a new way that not only highlights their flavor, but their beauty,” Santos says. The prix fixe menu of four to seven courses costs a $50 donation per person, it’s BYOB and you know in advance if it’s going to be omnivore, vegetarian or pescetarian. And while Santos can’t accommodate any substitutions due to size limitations, he can accommodate allergies if given advance notice.

If a date takes you to an Arts & Lettuce dinner, you know that he/she is adventurous and wants to treat you to something really special. Remember, you don’t know what you’re going to be eating until you get there, but you do know that it’s going to be delicious, and you’re going to be seated at a table full of strangers for several hours (dinners begin at 7 p.m. and end at 10 p.m., at the latest). This person is fun! This person also appreciates thoughtfully sourced, exquisitely prepared food. And since the saying goes, “You Are What You Eat,” or, as I like to say, HOW you eat, doesn’t that say a lot about a potential mate? I think so.

Photography by Gina Weathersby/Kiwi Street Studios

What to wear when dining downtown.

Oh, lucky you. You‘ve managed to land the most coveted table in town. You know the one. That cool, urban OTR restaurant that’s on everyone’s must-eat list: Abigail Street

Ever since Chef Daniel Wright won Food & Wine magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef, Great Lakes Division” award — in fact, even before that — people have been lining up for his delectable tapas-style plates. Sharable, mouth-watering offerings such as Hanger Steak with caramelized Brussels sprouts and Sweet Pea and Ricotta Crostini have those in the know happily waiting for hours outside his Vine Street door. You have achieved the impossible. So, what’s the problem?

Your mouth has been oh-so-ready for the dichotomy of the zesty, crisp pita paired against the cool, refreshing cucumber of the Fattoush salad along with the meltingly soft Pan Roasted Cod for days. Thoughts of Chorizo Stuffed Dates occupy your brain even more than your actual human date, yet there’s this sinking sensation deep down in the pit of your stomach.  

It’s the crowd.  

Everywhere you turn in the NYC-subway-tile covered room are chic, effortlessly dressed women of all ages occupying this supremely hip space. Instantly, the feelings of culinary anticipation you’ve had all week yo-yo back and are replaced by all-too-familiar insecurities. A sudden feeling of angst washes over you as your eyes scan the room and you spy one ultimately stylish, urbane lady, casually draped over a cool cocktail at the bar, and you begin to wonder: Do I fit in? Am I dressed appropriately? Is everyone staring at me? WHY is everyone staring at me? 

There’s something about sitting down to dine in one of the most up-to-the-minute restaurants in town that just makes you want to look your best. It’s true, the attire of the crowd does add to the ambience of the establishment, as it should. It’s a sign of respect to the owners and staff of the restaurant who, after all, have spent their hard-earned money and valuable time putting together this magnificent space for your entertainment and dining enjoyment — and it’s respectful to your fellow diners. I, for one, certainly don’t want to look up from my super sexy plate of Chef Wright’s fresh roasted local beets, Grilled Octopus and delicate ricotta gnocchi to see that I’m sitting next to someone in sweatpants. This isn’t the time to forgo grooming or attire and throw on a “head for the drive-thru” get-up.  

So, if you’re going to be fed by an expert such as Chef Wright, why not dress like a fashion expert as well, for the complete downtown Cincinnati experience? Coincidentally, just a few feet from the door of Abigail Street is the door to one of the hottest — yet still affordable — OTR boutiques I know of: Sloane Boutique

Owner Duru Armagan has created a carefully cultivated collection of clothing and accessories, including pieces in all price and age ranges. The personalized service, and the fact that Sloane features lots of local designers and artisans with unique, one-of-a-kind jewelry and fashions, makes it the kind of shop you want to frequent. And the location, smack dab in the middle of all the Gateway Quarter fun, makes it perfect for the whole “ladies night out” shopping/dining experience.  

What exactly will the downtown dining divas be wearing this fall? At the fall shows this past spring, Armagan spied and snatched up elegant, traditional tweed jackets in some not-so-traditional colors, which are being paired with casual fabrics such as denim, or rich, luscious leather. Lady-like embellished collars on blouses and dresses are dainty and sweet, often showing up in unique combinations such as leather on silk. Both will be perfect for the “ladies who lunch” crowd.  

Personally, I can’t wait for the funky motorcycle jackets in racy shades like Hunter green from a line called Veda, and the furry vests coming into the shop soon. Just slip one of these on whenever you’re rolling into town on your Harley, and casually toss it over your shoulders as you nibble on your wood grilled lamb sliders. I guarantee that everyone in the room will be staring at you, but for this time, it will be for all the right reasons.

From L to R: On Gabriella: Haven Mini, $175; Tatiana Wedges, DV, $76; Stone cuff, Moss Mills, $88On Ilene: Malia Tweed Jacket, Zoe, $347; Quincy Dress, $154; Orla Wedges, Dolce Vita, $175

Photography by Gina Weathersby/Kiwi Street Studios

How to balance cost and quality in the kitchen.

Every time I step into a shop like Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine, I’m convinced I’ve entered the foodie equivalent of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Glimmering bottles of amber-colored oils and ruby red vinegars catch my eye. Tiny emerald-like capers and crystalline sea salt from all corners of the world beckon from jars, which are equally fabulous in their own right. But, of course, these gastronomic gems cost dearly, and the price tags often emit jaw drops of their own. As a chef, and someone who cares deeply about the quality and taste of my food, I tell myself I need these items, but how do I afford them? By knowing exactly where I should splurge and remembering a few simple rules that help me shave big bucks off of everything else. 

Here are my absolute kitchen must-haves for dining divinely, and the low-down on how to make it all work: 

Must Have: 

  • Olive oil. Stellar first-pressed Italian, Spanish and Greek extra virgin olive oils can set you back $20 – $50 a bottle. These spectacular, fruity, bright green oils are not meant for the casual sauté or stir-fry. Drizzle this liquid gold on roasted meats and fish, and make yourself the best homemade vinaigrette you’ve ever tasted. Keep a bottle of basic olive oil — I like Trader Joe’s  — as well for general cooking needs. 
  • Salt. Yes, there really are differences between salts, and it can be very confusing. Salt is no longer just a basic commodity; there are dozens of global varieties. I have about a half dozen different salts just on my counter top. A good, basic, inexpensive box of Kosher salt is perfect for seasoning just about everything while cooking. Then, tableside is the place for a great “finishing” salt. Try the lovely, delicate Fleur de Sel. Just a pinch of these scale-like flakes between your fingers will add the perfect touch to any dish. 
  • Pure maple syrup. No argument. Just do it. I don’t care how charming that talking old-lady-shaped bottle is. Once you try the real stuff, you’ll know why pancakes were invented.  
  • Real vanilla extract. A little goes a long way in baking, and nothing else tastes like it — or makes your kitchen smell like it. 
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Or any hard cheese, for that matter. Use a vegetable peeler to shave this nutty wonder over steamed veggies, pasta and rice to make it go as far as possible. And don’t ever throw away that super valuable rind. Toss it into a pot of homemade soup for richness and extra depth of flavor.

Pinch A Penny: 

  • Grocery stores. I tend to shop the perimeter of the store. That’s where you’ll find the actual food: produce, meats, dairy and bread. The processed items are typically in the center isles. I know most folks are pressed for time these days, but processed items tend to be more expensive than whole, natural foods, which are healthier for you anyway.
  • Do as many things for yourself as possible.A general rule is that anything cut up and packaged by the grocery store costs more. This includes things like produce and poultry. So pass on those colorful containers of melon. As for the poultry, don’t skimp on quality. Buy that plump, free-range bird whole, and learn to cut it up. There are dozens of tutorials on YouTube. Bonus round? You get the bones for stock. 
  • Make friends at the farmers market … and shop at the end of the day. Instead of lugging home leftover goods, vendors will often be willing to make a deal. Learn to can or freeze the bounty and you’re a savings super hero. There is no greater feeling than pulling summer goodness out of your pantry in the middle of winter. 
  • Buy basics in bulk. Legumes, grains, pasta and rice store well, and are all things that should be the foundation of your diet. They’re inexpensive, healthy and filling. Grocery store brands are fine for these. 
  • Herbs and spices. This one spans both splurge and save. I absolutely must have the best, freshest items, but I hate the thought of unused spices going stale in my cabinet. Always buy the smallest amount necessary. I love shopping at Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices in Findlay Market so that I can buy exactly what is needed for each recipe, and nothing more. 

My Classic Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

  • 1¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  •  cup Sherry vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbs. finely minced shallot
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped mixed fresh herbs
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped capers (rinsed and drained)
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

Place all the ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake to mix. Add a tablespoon of honey, if desired. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately. Keeps in refrigerator for one week.

Photography by Gina Weathersby/Kiwi Street Studios

Making take-out favorites at home is easy (and healthy).

American women are super busy. Besides taking care of our families and chores on the home front, most of us have jobs outside the house as well. And with today’s technology, it’s very unusual to find someone living a typical nine-to-five business day anymore. There always seems to be enough time to fit in another office call or answer just one more email. The one thing we don’t seem to have time to do is to cook and eat well. For many people, the local take-out joint has become their go-to place for dinner, be it for convenience and/or economics. We’d like to be able to say we can do it all, but if it’s at the expense of our health, what are we saving? 

Our nation’s eating habits have gotten completely out of control, and fast food restaurants aren’t doing much to help. Have you seen some of their offerings lately? They always seem to take advantage of how strapped we are for time and cash, but, boy, it’s gone a bit too far. Now, I love pizza as much as the next person, but for some strange reason, the pizza makers seem to think that we’ve become bored with the basics. Pizza crusts are now being stuffed with … things. They started with pepperoni and have moved on to macaroni and cheese. Seriously? How many meals do we need in one simple slice? 

Pizza is one of the easiest things to make at home — and super healthy when you use whole wheat crust, lots of veggies and low-fat cheese. I love to entertain with a top-your-own pizza party. Keep your costs in check by visiting your local farmers market for fresh produce, and I highly recommend investing in a pizza stone for baking. This time of year is also wonderful for preparing your pizza on the grill. The smoky flavor imparted is almost as good as having your own wood-fired oven. Check out epicurious.com for some recipes. 

Chinese take-out is another easy food to make at home. As a child, Sunday night in my house always meant heading to our local Chinese restaurant. Even though it was supposed to be an appetizer, my parents let me order the Pu-Pu platter, an assortment of fried delicacies surrounding a small Sterno fire. I’m not sure if it was the taste of the food or my caveman-like fascination with cooking my own dinner that was more of the draw, but to this day, I’m still a huge fan, especially of egg rolls.

Contrary to popular belief, when done correctly, deep frying isn’t the fat-laden monster it’s made out to be. The heat from the oil essentially activates the food’s own moisture and steam cooks it from the inside, leaving it with a light, crispy crust. Fill your rolls with lean protein and lots of fresh vegetables and you’ve got the perfect starter. Egg rolls are another one of those great party foods, and I find that since everyone always winds up in the kitchen anyway, why not set out bowls of filling ingredients and let them roll their own? 

Susanna Wong Burgess of Oriental Wok offered us these tips for having an egg roll rolling soiree at home. “Always chop all of your ingredients the day before,” she says. “They’ll keep fine for a day in the fridge, and that way you can enjoy your guests.” Wong Burgess also suggests purchasing a wok for frying the rolls. If a wok isn’t in your budget, or you don’t have the space, egg rolls can also be made in a sauté pan.

When replicating Wong Burgess’ recipe for egg rolls at home, remember this deep frying rule: Always fry in a vegetable oil with little or no taste and a high smoke point, such as safflower or sunflower oil. You DO want the food’s taste to shine through. You DON’T want your smoke detector to go off. Also, don’t overload your pan. This will bring down the temperature of the oil and leave you with greasy egg rolls. When the rolls are done frying, use a paper towel or brown bag- coated cookie sheet as a landing spot.

Oriental Wok Egg Rolls 

Ingredients: 

  • 1 cup bean sprouts 
  • 1?4 cup shredded carrots 
  • 1?4 cup shredded bamboo strips 
  • 1?4 cup shredded peapods 
  • 1 tsp. rice wine 
  • 1 tsp. salt 
  • 1?2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder 
  • 1?4 tsp. white pepper 
  • Cornstarch, as needed 
  • 6 spring roll wrappers 
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Water or egg wash for wrapping 

Instructions: 

  1. Heat the vegetables in a large skillet or wok until hot and softened. Add salt, rice wine, five-spice powder and white pepper. Sprinkle in cornstarch to thicken as desired.
  2. Remove the vegetables from the heat and allow them to cool. Divide the veggie filling into 6 portions. Place the egg roll wrappers, diamond shaped, in front of you and then place the veggie filling horizontally on the lower third of wrapper. Fold the point nearest you over the filling, and then fold over the left and right corners.
  3. With the palm of your hand, complete by rolling the egg roll tightly away from you. Seal the edge of the wrapper with water or egg wash. Fry the egg rolls in oil heated to 350 degrees until golden brown.        

Photography by Gina Weathersby/Kiwi Street Studios