Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Foodie Look at Halloween...

I like to think I look at things from a different perspective than most, at least when it comes to food. It is, I hope, one of the reasons you read me. I'm a why guy and with that question, usually comes good information. Usually. I have found that when I know the why of something, or someone, I understand that person or thing a bit better. Sometimes for good...sometimes for bad. But hey, life's a crap shoot right? You don't gain if you don't risk. What does this have to do with Halloween? Actually, not much, but thanks for listening.

Except maybe to say that I'm going to take a completely different look at Halloween. Culturally, through food. What a surprise. See when I was an Italian kid, in North Jersey, we would go trick or treating in the neighborhoods we grew up in. Neighborhoods with the same neighbors, usually aunts, or cousins or cousin of a cousin. In the same houses, for years upon end. People we trusted and in some cases loved. At Halloween, that meant we used to get home baked pies, fresh from the oven cookies, and treats made by the people from scratch. Real food items from neighbors, friends and family. I always thought that was cool. Even then I was a foodie in training.

Don't get me wrong, I loved all the candy as well, eating it until I was tooth-achingly nauseous. But, the home-made 'treats' we received usually meant sitting down at the table with a glass of milk and questions about your mom and dad and family. You then wiped your face on the back of your hand, kissed Aunt Josephine and raced off to the Aunt Rosina's for the next visit and course. By the time you got home, you were stuffed! I loved stopping by 10 relatives houses, 'making the rounds,' seeing my aunts, uncles, cousins, family and friends on our little three hour tour. It got me thinking about all those treats and I decided to take look at some of the food traditions of Halloween.

Admittedly there are many beliefs, misconceptions and traditions which surround this holiday. I say holiday with an asterisk, like they use in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, when there is a disputed record. Halloween is that kind of day. It's Pagen, it's Christian, It's evil,  it's innocent. It's harmless, it's Mischief's...well whatever! Trick or Treat! BOO!

Halloween or Hallowe'en as we refer to it now, is also known as All Hallows' Eve, observed around the world on October 31 on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows. Most scholars believe that All Hallows' Eve was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead, with pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. Many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead. Others maintain that it originated independently of Samhain. I was actually amazed when I started to do the research, that what I thought was a very American holiday, is in fact an ancient ritual dating back centuries. Now we have definitely made it a national pastime here in America, but I was more interested in a look at the traditions around the world.

The majority of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles. People took steps to allay or ward-off these harmful spirits/fairies, which is thought to have influenced today's Halloween customs. In parts of Ireland, Mann, the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and Wales, wearing costumes at Samhain was done before the 20th century originating as a means of disguising oneself from these harmful spirits/fairies. In Ireland, people went about before nightfall collecting for Samhain feasts and sometimes wore costumes while doing so.

In the 19th century on Ireland's southern coast, a man dressed as a white mare would lead youths door-to-door collecting food; by giving them food, the household could expect good fortune from the 'Muck Olla'. In Moray, during the 18th century, boys called at each house in their village asking for fuel for the Samhain bonfire. So it's easy to see where Trick-or-treating may have come from. But wait, it also may come from the Christian custom of souling; Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door on All Saints/All Souls collecting soul cakes, originally as a means of praying for souls in purgatory. Making jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween came from Samhain and Celtic beliefs as well. Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them are recorded in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking of a barmbrack (Irish: báirín breac), which is a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year. Though the origin of the word Halloween is Christian, the holiday is commonly thought to have pagan roots.

North American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was recognized as a holiday there. The traditions and importance of the Halloween celebration vary significantly among countries that observe it. In Scotland and Ireland, traditional Halloween customs include children dressing up in costume going "guising", holding parties, while other practices in Ireland include lighting bonfires, and having firework displays. The influence of the American iconic and commercial components of the holiday now extended to places such as South America, Australia, New Zealand, (most) continental Europe, Japan, and other parts of East Asia.

Halloween Food around the World

Barmbrack (Ireland)
Barmbrack is the center of an Irish Halloween custom. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolise going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day

Bonfire toffee (Great Britain)
Bonfire toffee (also known as treacle toffee, cinder toffee, Plot toffee, or Tom Trot) is a hard, brittle toffee associated with Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night (also known as "Bonfire Night") in the United Kingdom. The toffee tastes very strongly of molasses (black treacle), and cheap versions can be quite bitter. In Scotland, the treat is known as claggum, with less sweet versions known as clack. In Wales, it is known as loshin du. The flavor is similar to that of butterscotch, although it is a toffee and never a viscous liquid.

Candy apples/toffee apples (Great Britain & Ireland)

Candy apples, also known as toffee apples outside of North America, are whole apples covered in a hard toffee or sugar candy coating, with a stick inserted as a handle. These are a common treat at autumn festivals in Western culture in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night because these festivals fall in the wake of the annual apple harvest. Although candy apples and caramel apples may seem similar, they are made using distinctly different processes.
William W. Kolb invented the red candy apple. Kolb, a veteran Newark candy-maker, produced his first batch of candied apples in 1908. While experimenting in his candy shop with red cinnamon candy for the Christmas trade, he dipped some apples into the mixture and put them in the windows for display. He sold the whole first batch for 5 cents each and later sold thousands yearly. Soon candied apples were being sold along the Jersey Shore, at the circus and in candy shops across the country, according to the Newark News in 1948.

Caramel Apples

Caramel apples or taffy apples (not to be confused with candy apples) are created by dipping or rolling apples-on-a-stick in hot caramel, sometimes then rolling them in nuts or other small savories or confections, and allowing them to cool. Generally, they are called caramel apples when only caramel is applied and taffy apples for when there are further ingredients such as peanuts applied.

Caramel Corn
An American confection made of popcorn coated with a sugar or molasses based caramel candy shell. Typically a sugar solution or syrup is made and heated until it browns and becomes thick, producing a caramelized candy syrup. This hot candy is then mixed with popped popcorn, and allowed to cool. Sometimes a candy thermometer is used, as making caramel is time-consuming and requires skill to make well without burning the sugar. The process creates a sweet flavored, crunchy snack food or treat. Some varieties, after coating with the candy syrup, are baked in an oven to crisp the mixture. Mixes of caramel corn sometimes contain nuts, such as peanuts, pecans, almonds, or cashews. The combination of caramel and corn dates back at least as far as the 1890s with the strong molasses flavor of Cracker Jack, an early version of which was introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The lighter, sweet but un-caramelized kettle corn, may be a North American Colonial predecessor to caramel corn.

Candy Corn, (North America)
Candy corn is a confection in the United States and Canada, popular primarily in autumn around Halloween (though available year-round in most places). Candy corn was created in the 1880s by George Renninger of the Wunderlee Candy Company; the three colors of the candy mimic the appearance of kernels of corn. Each piece is approximately three times the size of a whole kernel from a ripe or dried ear. Candy corn is made primarily from sugar, corn syrup, wax, artificial coloring and binders. A serving of Brach's Candy Corn is nineteen pieces, is 140 calories and has zero grams of fat. Candy corn pieces are traditionally cast in three colors: a broad yellow end, a tapered orange center, and a pointed white tip.

Colcannon (Ireland)
Colcannon is traditionally made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), with scallions, butter, salt and pepper added. It can contain other ingredients such as milk, cream, leeks, onions and chives. There are many regional variations of this dish. It is often eaten with boiled ham or Irish bacon. At one time it was a cheap, year-round staple food, though nowadays it is usually eaten in autumn/winter, when kale comes into season. An old Irish Halloween tradition is to serve colcannon with a ring and a thimble hidden in the fluffy green-flecked dish. Prizes of small coins such as threepenny or sixpenny bits were also concealed in it.

Soul Cakes
A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Saints Day or All Souls' Day to celebrate the dead. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, were given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who would go from door to door on Halloween singing and saying prayers for the dead. Each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they were also known as Harcakes.

The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows Eve as an offering for the dead, and on All Saints Day and All Soul's Day children would go "souling," or ritually begging for cakes door to door.

Soul Cakes
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon salt
generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup currants

For the Glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degree. Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork. Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat. Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.

One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently. Decorate the soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny.

Bon Appetit,


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Up Close & Personal with Food Network's Duff Goldman

Certain people have an inimitable style. Their uniqueness sets them apart from the pack and always calls our attention to them. Such is the case with Duff Goldman. His infectious laugh, his love of life and his cherub-like smile have captivated audiences and Food Network fans now for over a decade. He is incredibly funny and we had a blast doing this Up Close. With his first show Ace of Cakes we tagged along as he and his crew made incredible cakes, from the famed full sized Nascar car to his intricate full sized Star Wars R2D2. We fans of the show tuned in each week for not just the cakes, but the fun. Duff and his friends at Charm City Cakes took us on a sometimes hilarious ride while they created masterpieces and as we got to know them, they became part of our weekly fabric for over 9 seasons. Now with hit shows Kids Baking Championships and Holiday Baking Championships he is back on our TV sets, bringing us not only his incredible wit, but his baking expertise as well. As you know, if you are a fan and follower of these Up Close & Personals, they are just that for me as well. This series satisfies my need to
know more about those personalities that I enjoy and admire. In turn, I get to bring you in as a fly on the wall to sit with the guest of the moment and maybe get to know them a bit better, understanding the person behind the persona. I truly enjoy doing them as much as I hope you enjoy reading them. So without further ado, let's get Up Close & Personal with Geoffrey Adam "Duff" Goldman.

Goldman was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1974 to a Jewish family. He moved shortly thereafter to Missouri. Goldman's nickname Duff came about when he was a baby. His toddler brother was unable to pronounce the name and kept saying Duffy instead of Geoffrey. When he was four, his mother caught him in her kitchen wielding a meat cleaver and watching food personality Chef Tell. I asked him expand a bit about his childhood and its influence on his culinary career. "My mom was a great cook," he explained, "dinner was every night, the same time, at the dinner table. Food was an important part of our house and an important part of our religion. Growing up Jewish, every holiday surrounds itself around food. Food is a very central thing and it's not just that there is just a meal tied to each celebration, but conversely, it's the celebration that's tied to that specific meal. It never seemed though, that food was overly important in our family, it just was what it was, an intrinsic part of our lives." I mentioned that I could relate because as an Italian the heart of our house was the kitchen. He chimed in. "Yeah yeah, it's like every time the family would get together at our house, we'd all be in the kitchen while my mom was trying to cook."

Duff and his Mom
"The whole thing with the cleaver and Chef Tell, that's completely true, but when they do the 'bio of Duff Goldman,' there is not gonna be this scene where this little four year old is in the kitchen saying, 'I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was little.' There are plenty of celebrity chefs who have that story," he laughed. Folks I can relate to hearing those long winded statements like 'I was in the cradle and one day while drinking my bottle I realized that cooking would be my life.' He continued, "When I was three years old I wanted to be a fireman, like all the other 3 year olds. Sometimes I hate telling people, 'No, I didn't start baking until I was in college.'"

Duff, his Mom and Brother
After the divorce of his parents when he was ten, Goldman spent time living in both in Northern Virginia and then in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1992, Goldman attended McLean High School in McLean, Virginia where he played for the Highlanders. In 1993, he graduated from Sandwich High School in Sandwich. At the age of fourteen, he began to work in kitchens; one of his first jobs was at a bagel store at a mall, where the story is that he was almost fired for making the sandwiches too big. He tells the true story, "This shop you could get all these different sandwiches on a bagel, tuna salad, ham and cheese, turkey etc.. You pick your bagel, you pick your sandwich, that was the concept. The way that they would do it was, they made it idiot proof." He explained, "They would pre weigh out the sandwich meat, but it was so small I would use three of them and they were not happy about that. The thing that actually almost got me fired though was this couple that came to the counter and I was there by myself. They ordered a Coke. I tried to work the register but couldn't get it open so I told them 'Here just take it.' The manager saw it and was like 'What are you doing? You just stole from the company!' Duff laughed, "I think it cost them all of $0.04 cents. So I got taken to the woodshed and they put me on mopping duty and I became a professional mopper. Actually I love mopping." Now there's something not everybody knows about Duff!

Chef Cindy Wolf
Goldman has said that when he was a sophomore in college, he went to what he considered the finest restaurant in Baltimore, named Charleston, with head chef, Cindy Wolf to apply for a job. He offered why. "There was this really cute girl in one of my archaeology classes, " he giggled. "Turns out she worked at this restaurant and she told me I should come work there and so I applied as a chef...cause you know...I had all this experience from cheffing at that bagel store, McDonald's, the sandwich shop making breakfast, etc." He smirked, "So I brought my resume in and Cindy looked at it and said, 'Um, you don't know how to cook!' I argued, 'Come on of course I do, I can make 12 Big Macs in a minute!" However, Cindy did offer him a job making cornbread and biscuits and this is what Goldman cites as the turning point in his career. He continued, "I took the job and that's what I did. Every single day.... cornbread and biscuits. Slowly but surely, the other cooks realized that I wanted to learn so they would show me how to do their grunt work. They asked, 'Can you brunoise (finely cube) a tomato?' I said, 'I don't know what that is.' So they would show me. Each day they would teach me how to do something else and what happened was, I started learning." Duff started to help out at each station, doing certain chores. I paused and asked him, "Isn't there a name for a chef that does all that in the kitchen?'' and he answered immediately, "Yea....bitch!"

"I was even the dishwasher's bitch," he laughed, "but here's the funny thing. They could prep man. The dishwashers were the ones that actually taught me knife skills. It wasn't some Japanese institute of knife skills, it was these Salvadorian dishwashers. It was exactly what I needed. I learned so much from these guys and that's where I realized what Cindy was talking about when she initially told me 'you need to go work somewhere else to learn, then come here.'"

"It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a pastry chef," he continued, "I worked with a pastry chef at Cindy's restaurant and ended up doing all the prep and he would simply come in and assemble all my prep. I liked how really ordered that baking and pastry was. I liked the exactitude. I was good in math and I could actually do geometry in my head. I love to make bread for instance. It's very exact yet very loose at the same time. You have to adapt for humidity and temperature. If I come back, I'm coming back as a bread maker.

Duff went on to work at several acclaimed culinary destinations, including the French Laundry, the Vail Cascade Hotel and Todd English's Olives before returning to Baltimore in 2000 to become a personal chef. He expanded on his French Laundry experience working under Chef Stephen Durfee. "Durfee is the man," he offered. "The thing that makes him such an amazing pastry chef is that he started out savory and he approaches pastry from a flavor aspect. Many times I've seen pastry chefs that deliver in terms of flawless execution, but they fall short when you actually taste what they've made. With Durfee, he taught me to think about all the raw ingredients before you ever assemble them into something. As an example," he continued, "one time we were making a honeydew sorbet. We pureed then strained them, to have basically honeydew water. He then had me taste it and yes, it tasted like honeydew. Next he had me add a touch of salt and a bit of lemon juice and taste it again. We had reserved a bit of the plain honeydew water and he had me taste first the plain, then the one with salt and lemon juice. The second honeydew water was like a honeydew punch in the face. That was a huge lesson for me. He is a master of technique, but he truly cooks from the heart and it changed the way I approach being a pastry chef." I asked him what is was like working there and he answered, "Very tough kitchen. You had to be perfect 100% of the time. Not in a way that is militant. You walk in and and it's just in the DNA of that place that you have to be super focused. In the moment. Once you walk in it's all about the food. It's about passion for the food in a real way, not the mundane, foodie use of the word passion."

I then switched gears and asked him to compare that to working with Todd English. He laughed, "Todd is an incredible chef. I love watching Todd cook and he's hysterical. It's like a good old boys club. In the kitchen away from the cameras, watching Todd is an amazing experience. He doesn't talk much but his facial expressions are priceless. The way he moves, like when he tastes something; he gets very quiet, there's a lot going on in there and the world disappears. He would run it through his little Todd English computer and figure out what to do. That was a fun kitchen. Clay Conley was the Sous when I worked there. Hands down Clay is the best line cook I have ever seen!"

We jumped to Charm City Cakes and Ace of Cakes. It was through Duff's love of music while a personal chef in DC, that Charm City Cakes came to be. Duff is a bass player and quit cheffing for a time to play music full time while he continued to make cakes out of his apartment to actually pay the rent. "The only reason I started baking cakes was to actually fund my music career. Then my friend from college Jeff, also an incredible musician, was working as an architectural model builder. He called me one day and said, 'I can't do this anymore, can I come and make cakes?' I was like sure. And we actually started making money. I had a few more friends call and I started hiring all my friends.

This was a nice way that we could all make a living and still play music. It finally grew so large we had to actually get a place, which became Charm City Cakes. A lot of folks don't realize but all through filming Ace of Cakes we were all still touring, gigging and playing music. That's the only reason we started this in the first place. Not to get rich, be on TV or make a lot of money. We did it to pay our bills so we could keep playing," he laughed.

He explained how Ace of Cakes came to be. "I was in a cake contest for Bon Appetit out in Colorado. Not televised or anything. But, I brought an arc welder with me. Got lots of weird looks from the judges. I made this cake, it was awesome. But I broke every rule of the competition," he laughed. "I even lit the table on fire at one point. I lost, because I lose every competition I'm in for some reason, but it was really funny watching me. Colette Peters, who was one of the judges, went back to Food Network and told them 'There's this guy, he's a complete lunatic he's crazy and he made a really cool cake but he's insane."
So Food Network called us up, this is when they were doing all those cake competition shows, and they asked if we wanted to compete. So we go to this competition in Seal Island Georgia, The Spooky Halloween Cake and Candy Competition. We go to Georgia," he continued, "and we meet all the contestants and everyone is nervous and practicing. Jeff and I, on the other hand, went and shot shotguns at a skeet range. And the film crew came with us. When the episode came out, they showed all the other contestants practicing and then me and Jeff shooting. It was hysterical. What attracted them was how relaxed we were. We weren't with the sob story like 'Oh, I need to win this money for that operation I wanted,' like you always hear contestants saying. We told them if we won I was going to take my staff to Mexico to party."

We cut to present day and his resurgence on Food Network and his new shows. Fans of Duff can find him on Holiday Baking Championship, Spring Baking Championship and with Valerie Bertinelli, he hosts and judges Kids Baking Championship. In addition to the Kids show with Bertinelli I asked him why he is attracted to working with kids. Duff is very involved with No Kid Hungry and the Make-a-Wish organizations. "I don't know," he answered, "adults have really screwed up the world. I think
it's because kids still really see the world as a beautiful, wonderful place to be. I believe they need to eat well and have art and creativity as a part of their lives. Make-a-Wish is really important, not just for the kids but for their families too. They are going through this really tough time and whenever I do a Make-a-Wish, I try to include the entire family. I've noticed it's not about the celebrity either. Most of these kids that call and say 'I want to make a cake with Duff,' simply really do want to make a cake. And that's what we we do. We bring them in and we make a cake together. I think the families really appreciate their son, daughter or brother or sister being treated just like any other kid."

Duff has a new book "Duff Bakes" coming out in November and we touched on that briefly. "It's cool," he offered, "it's everything, bread, cookies, pies, cakes, muffins. It's a comprehensive baking book, all about how I think about food and how to bake. I basically tried to demystify everything. I meet people almost everyday who tell me 'I love to cook but I just don't get baking.' People, I think, are scared of baking because a lot of bakers talk about baking in such scary terms, the science and how exacting it is. I just try to let people have fun actually baking and not worry about the science portion of it. I try to explain it in English they understand. I just want people to actually do it. I've been baking half my life now and it's still magic when you put something in the oven and it changes and comes out this whole other thing. There is something beautiful about that. I hope this just helps folks actually bake."

As a fan of Duffs since he first hit TV, this was really fun for me. He is a caring, very funny guy and you definitely get what you see. I guess the best way I could describe him: genuine. He hinted at something exciting coming up with Food Network, so you'll have to stay tuned for that and he also surprised me by mentioning that a new cookbook about soup was in the works. See, there it is right there, one of the things I love about Duff; he's always experimenting, always looking for new adventures and always bringing us new surprises. I hope you enjoyed this Up Close with Duff. I know I did.

To connect with Duff, you can follow him on his social platforms here: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and visit his websites, Charm City Cakes and Duff Goldman. Look for his new book out this fall and as always you can see him on his many appearances on Food Network.

Till next time, Bon Appetit,

Monday, August 03, 2015

Dinner in the Garden...a special moment in time.

There are moments when it truly dawns on me how lucky I am to do what I do. A while ago, I attended a 'Dinner in the Garden" and it was a smashing success. What a spectacular setting for a five star wine dinner. On tap for the evening was an intimate line up of some stellar chefs, who wowed us with fresh, hours, if not minutes before picked, produce and sustainable organic ingredients, delivering a meal that was an experience to remember.

With a backdrop of rows of fresh greens and herbs, it wasn't just the jazz trio sending out smooth cool vibes across the field, or the perfect weather the evening produced. It wasn't the sunset, bathing the greenhouse and guests with warm sunshine, or the guests dressed for an evening in the field, mingling, picking and tasting fresh herbs. It wasn't even the spectacular meal, served in fine style by a bow-tied waitstaff. Nor was it the seeing of friends and sharing a glass of bubbly. Now I realized as I stood in the midst of the garden, wine glass in hand, having stopped to take in the scene before me, that it was all those things combined together at this one place and time that had created what was almost a perfect experience. One of those unforgettable culinary moments that we foodies live for.

My gift on this evening, aside from spending quality time with good friends in such a wonderful setting, was that somehow fate had allowed me to glimpse the uniqueness of the moment and see it while I was in it. You know what I mean, one of those moments in time that we usually say to ourselves in hindsight, "I wish I was aware at the time how special that moment was." Too often we are so busy looking ahead to the next thing on our schedule that we forget to take the time to appreciate the 'moment' when it happens.

Friends, if you have been reading me for any length of time, you know that life has thrown me some curves, as I'm sure it has you as well. While I am no expert and can't tell you what to do, I can give my advice at what not to do. For all our planning, stressing and worrying about what the future may bring, I have learned one thing; no one is promised tomorrow. Don't miss the moment you are in. This very moment. You see, I'm sure all of you, like me. have too many times taken our adventures and our experiences for granted. Make sure you are cognizant of that special moment, in that special place, with someone, or a group of someones, sharing a meal and making memories.

I have concentrated my world around social cuisine because I am very fortunate to have a friend who opened my eyes to what a common denominator food truly is to human relationships. I believe it is the unifier that binds us all. Sharing a meal with friends is so much more than just eating great food and enjoying fine wine. Somehow, a shared meal is the perfect vehicle for a connection between friends, family, or even strangers. It is why I am so passionate and fortunate to share my culinary journeys with you. I'm sure all of us can remember times, when dining, that you've engaged perfect strangers in conversation. See, it seems no matter our ethnic or cultural differences, we all remember the dumplings our moms made. Or that special dessert. Or simply the act of sitting at a table with those you care about, sharing a meal. It is a truly powerful experience. Social, yet intimate all at once.

Throughout history, throughout cultures, the meal is the one constant that opens the discourse, bridges the gap, connecting rather than dividing us. The dinner table is where treaties were written, alliances made, scholarly discourse engaged in. Ideas that changed the world, in most cases, happened at a dinner table, or at a campfire, over a meal. For most now though, eating has become just a means of sustenance. Fuel. In the busy scurry of life, sometimes we forget what a meal with family and friends can do for us, both spiritually and emotionally.

Don't you love meeting a friend for coffee, or a bite for lunch, or dinner. We look forward to it. We text what time and where we are and we always feel better for it. We share pictures of our meals on twitter, facebook, and YouTube... food is the one thing we all share equally. Look around, see all those people on cell phones, trying to stay 'connected?' How connected do you feel when you share a meal with someone? For those of us that are fortunate enough to realize this, sitting at the dinner table with friends and loved ones has never been about the act of eating. Whether fine dining or casual, it is never about what we were eating. It was where and with whom. That is always first and foremost.

As a self titled gourmet, as my palette has become more sophisticated, I'll admit, I now care very much what I'm eating, especially with friends. However, I'm comfortable in the fact that my predilection for fine, or simple quality cuisine just makes the social act of sharing a meal more enjoyable and meaningful. So, the next time you want to connect, re-connect, apologize, congratulate, or just shoot the breeze, do it over a meal. Life becomes so much more civil with shared experiences. And make sure you don't miss the moment. Revel in the laughter, the camaraderie, the connection. Look around the table, realize and appreciate those you are sharing that moment with and know, this moment actually is special.

As always, Bon Appetit