I spent the summer trying to perfect my Mediterranean Dinner Party.
I thought lunchtime would be great. I could spend the evening cleaning up. However, Jackson was miserable as this was his naptime. We actually had a full-blow melt down with guests at the table. As I tried to comfort Jackson and get him to sleep, the guests sat frozen at the table, afraid to move and disturb him. What a day!
Sunday evenings are tough, because there is a lot of cleanup, and then back to work the next morning. No fun staying up all night washing dishes, and no fun coming home to a sink full of dishes after a day at the office.
I think I landed on an early Sunday dinner. This gives me Saturday to do the housework, laundry, grocery shopping, and prep-work for dinner guests. And still a few hours in the evening for cleanup.
Another challenge is finding ingredients. One day the hot Italian sausage/ricotta cheese/rotisserie chicken/lettuce/basil is available, the next day it is not. It is tough to plan a menu when you don’t know what will be available.
Not speaking the language is also a challenge. I asked for 15 chicken legs and got six. I asked again for 15, and I got 40! (Almost 50…but I when I finally caught on, I had him stop!) I did buy the 40 chicken legs – I just divided them up and popped them in the freezer.
Guest preference/Dietary Restrictions is another challenge. I thought I had the perfect menu – Baked Ziti, Salad, Garlic Bread, Tiramisu…until I learned that one of my guests was lactose intolerant. I reworked the menu to include no cheese. Gazpacho, Hot Italian Sausages with peppers in a tomato sauce – over rigatoni, Parmesan cheese on the side. Roasted Chicken (I had to roast myself, as there were no rotisserie chickens at the store), and Nicoise salad. Apricot Cake and Italian cookies for dessert. Red wine sangria. It was a hit! Everyone gobbled up everything!
I tried to recreate this menu, but there were no Hot Italian Sausages to be had. Since we had no dietary restrictions this time, I went with the baked ziti. Instead of roasting a whole chicken, I roasted chicken legs. Same Nicoise salad and I did an almond and pear cake with (my personal favorite) Italian Anise Cookies as there was no mascarpone cheese for the Tiramisu. Aperol Spritz. This time, no one touched a thing!
I like the overall theme and gist of the menu. Something for everyone: vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant, nut allergies, etc. I’ve never had Gazpacho before, let alone made it. I found it to be cool, fresh, and delicious. The Nicoise salad is great for picky eaters. Everything was relatively easy to put together.
Colleagues of mine are off to Baku, so I invited them over for an Azerbaijani lunch.
I’ve never made Baklava before, and was intrigued when I accidentally purchased Filo dough, instead of puff pastry at the grocery store. Now was the perfect time to give it a try!
It was not difficult at all, just labor intensive. You have to butter each layer of dough individually, and then let the baked creation sit overnight. I ordered take-out on Saturday, and made the baklava instead of dinner!
After baking, you pour the sugar syrup over top and let it rest overnight. It was ready in time for Sunday lunch.
Next on the menu was Plov, or pilaf.
Lots of lovely dried fruits, fluffy basmati rice, lots of butter, and some chicken.
Another relatively easy dish. I used 1.5 pounds of boneless skinless chicken thighs to 6 cups of cooked rice. I would use more chicken next time. The recipe is below. I did not use chestnuts.
I rounded out the lunch with a cucumber and tomato salad, fresh watermelon, and some miniature pita breads slathered with butter and garlic, and warmed in the oven for a few minutes. I also had a few leftover chocolate cupcakes that made an appearance. (what? Leftover cupcakes?? – I know, I know!!)
I set out my Azerbaijani tea set, and we had Laduree’s Marie Antoinette tea.
I hope I was able to share enough information about Baku/Azerbaijan to satiate their appetite until they actually arrive and can experience it for themselves! What an adventure!
Growing up, salt and pepper were the spices of the day. If we wanted to kick things up a notch, we added some garlic powder. I still remember being quite surprised that the neighbor kid sprinkled crushed red pepper on his pizza! He was a rebel!
Spices like Cardamom and Ginger were quite the rarity – although I did use 1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder in my Libby’s pumpkin pie each year.
Starting this adventure, and moving from the U.S. opened my eyes (or should I say, my palate) to the new and unknown!
While in New Zealand, I had volunteered to set up the school gym for the ‘Leaver’s Ball’. This is like Prom for the U.S. kids. We had accomplished quite a bit, and it was time to break for tea. My friend handed me this muffin and asked if I could tell what was in it. I had no idea…but it was AMAZING! It was an apple muffin, with cardamom and ginger! Who ever would have guessed?? The woman who baked the muffins was not keen on sharing her recipe, so I had to come up with my own. I kept experimenting, and am now quite satisfied with my apple muffins with cardamom and ginger. The secret is to use the actual spice…and not the powdered stuff.
While the sugar and apples are hanging out together, you can pound your ginger and cardamom pods. (removing the outer pod…using only the black seeds)
Be sure to sift your flour, this really does make a difference. Stir everything together.
You will end up with the most amazing flavor packed muffins that you can imagine.
4C green apples, cored, seeded, and chopped
2C granulated sugar
2/3 C vegetable oil
4 egg whites
3C all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
seeds from 15-20 cardamom pods
8-10 bits of dried ginger, pulverized. (or a nob of fresh ginger)
1 – Combine chopped apples with the sugar. Macerate for one hour.
2 – Then, add the oil and stir.
3 – Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
4 – Slightly beat egg whites just until a light foam appears. Combine them with the oil and apple mixture.
5 – Sift the flour, salt, baking soda. stir into apple mixture. stir in spices.
6 – Place mixture into paper baking cups, in a muffin tin, to about 3/4ths full.
Wednesday evening was spent with friends learning how to make Indonesian food. We had stir fried noodles with shrimp (Bakmi Goreng) and chicken satay with peanut sauce. I’ve not yet been to Indonesia and have not heard of Bakmi Goreng, but it was delicious! The chicken satay was cooking when we arrived. It smelled AMAZING! I loved that the chicken bites were BITE SIZED after cooking. When I tried grilling chicken on skewers, it shrunk up, and we ended up with chicken bits.
Mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, green onion, garlic were all sauteed in vegetable oil.
Cooked rice noodles, Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce, and a medium sweet soy sauce were all added to the mix. (Indonesian ingredients were procured from Thessaloniki, Greece) Then 2 eggs were added and fried into the mix.
When we arrived, the chicken was already on the skewers and cooking outside on the grill. Once cooked, it was put in the oven to keep warm, while we worked on the stir fried noodles.
Ramesh put the noodles and cooked chicken on the serving dish (in between taking photos!) and set it on the table.
We all had a lovely dinner, enjoying the great company and great food. We enjoyed HOMEMADE ice cream (I had cinnamon, Ramesh had strawberry), and a some assorted chocolates for dessert. We were savoring every bite, and did not get any photos!
We then got a tour of our host’s home. It was so warm and inviting. The end of the evening came too soon.
I enjoyed participating in a cooking class by celebrity chef Adriana Alachki and her son Blagoja. We spent the afternoon learning how to make Pinjur, Pie with Leeks, Maleshevska Tava and a few other tasty dishes.
Pinjur is a roasted pepper and eggplant spread, served with white cheese (which is like Feta).
The peppers were roasted ahead of time, and we had to peel the skin and remove the seeds. There was some discussion on whether leaving a few sees in would make the dish bitter.
We made a Leek ‘Pie’.
We brushed sheets of phyllo dough with a flour, yeast, and sparkling water mixture. We then topped the phyllo dough with some white (feta) cheese with egg, and sprinkled with the chopped leeks. We rolled up the dough and created rings in a round pan to create the ‘pie’.
Our pie turned out great. So fresh and delicious!
Maleshevska tava, made with several kinds of fresh meat, a couple of types of mushrooms, vegetables, spices, .. all mixed together provide a very special flavor.
The pork, ‘bacon’, vegetables were all sauteed with a TON of butter and sunflower oil – and some white wine. The pork was transferred to a baking dish. Meatballs were sauteed and then added to the pork dish. Everything was topped with shredded cheese and popped into the oven.
Ours cooked for about an hour, but we were told that at home, you would cook it slowly for 2-3 hours.
We had a great time learning about local cuisine and culture. Everything was delicious, and Ramesh enjoyed the leftovers!
Thai Pongal is a Tamil harvest festival. Pongal is a four-day festival which according to the Gregorian calendar is normally celebrated from January 14 to January 16.
Thai Pongal is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, and the country of Sri Lanka, as well as Tamils worldwide. Thai Pongal corresponds to Makara Sankranthi, the winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India.
The day marks the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards (the Uttaraayanam). This also corresponds to the Indic solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makara or Capricorn. Thai Pongal is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for a successful harvest. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam.
We had a few friends over for dinner. ‘Spicy Curry’ was requested so we had spicy shrimp curry, and not so spicy chicken tikka masala, green beans, cucumber raita, and a rice pudding called payasam. (We also had beef and broccoli, an Austrian peach cake, chocolate chip cookies, and vanilla ice cream…none of which were Indian inspired…but all very yummy!)
Finding the beef was a bit of a challenge. We were trying to get a beef tenderloin. We were told that the local grocery store occasionally has them. We asked on Saturday, and were told to come back on Monday morning. Ramesh went on Monday, and they told him to come back Monday afternoon. He went back Monday afternoon, and they gave him a beef round roast.
He went back on Tuesday to explain that he wanted a tenderloin, and not a roast. They told him that it was a tenderloin.
I called a friend who has experience with these things. She got the tenderloin on Friday, and Ramesh picked it up from her. We have a bit more in the freezer, and it is being treated like gold. Sheesh!
We drove ourselves, parked in a lot, and ended up paying 20 EUR in parking fees, plus we parked in front of the Schönbrunn Palace walked FOREVER in the frigid air until we finally found the zoo! (We could have purchased the Hop On bus ticket for 48 hours. The current special was offering one day free. We would have been dropped off right in front of our venues and saved 20 euro in parking fees! Advance planning is the key!)
We stopped in the palace cafe for breakfast and paid a king’s ransom for a turkey sandwich, a muffin, fresh orange juice, and a cappuccino. Two tickets to use the toilet were provided when we paid the bill.
We were also hoping to find an ATM, as we still had zero euros. It is hard to buy mulled wine at the Christmas Markets without local cash. The one and only ATM at the complex was out of cash. It was a bit of a frustrating start to the day. Luckily, we did not have too much scheduled, so we were able to take it in stride.
Ramesh was frozen solid by the time we reached the zoo. He was glad most of the animals were inside their individual houses, so we were able to warm up frequently. There are free toilets at the zoo, but no ATM.
After the zoo, Ramesh went back to the ATM, and thankfully it had been refilled. We poked around the Christmas Markets in front of the Schonbrunn Palace. It is smaller than the Rathaus Market, but so much cuter. We thought the food was better too. We had potatoes with ham and soup in a bread bowl. We also tried some baked apple rings. Everything was tasty.
Later that evening, we popped into Hard Rock cafe and shared a hot fudge sundae. We asked if they would be open on Saturday (Christmas Eve), as their online booking was ‘grayed out’. They were planning to be open, were fully booked, and would try to squeeze in walk-ins where they could.
Starbucks was just across the street, so we had to go. I explained to Ramesh that it was an abomination to drink Starbucks while in Vienna, but we did it anyway! We ended up leaving our Java Chip Frappuccino in the car overnight – and enjoyed it the next morning on the way to the train station.
Friday’s plan was to have coffee and cake in a cafe, visit the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs for Jackson), and hit up the large Rathaus Christmas Market.
We did not leave our room until 10am. We took the U1 train to Stephansplatz, and made our way to the Justin Meinl cafe. I was unprepared for how much we would love this place! The coffee was amazing! The apricot cake was yummy! Ramesh caught up on his Facebook and WhatsApp, while I poked around the store. Two stories of gourmet heaven!! If I would have known to expect this, I might have had a list. (probably better for our budget that I didn’t!) I just roamed the aisles in complete awe. Cookies, chocolates, wine, liquors, fresh fruits, breads, cakes, cheeses, spices, coffee beans… We got out of there in a jiffy – with only some coffee beans, a bottle of apricot brandy, and the crispiest, crunchiest, most delicious apples I’ve had in years.
We asked this fellow for directions. He was very helpful. If we were in the market for a tree, we would have bought one from him.
After our coffee and little shopping spree, we grabbed some mulled wine from the front of Julius Meinl, walked to the State Opera House, and hopped on the Hop On bus for a city tour. We stayed on the bus for one complete circle. I would not do that again in Vienna. Really, everything you want to see is in the center, and the bus takes you to far flung areas with not much going on. (especially in winter).
Back at the Opera House, we walked to the Natural History museum. We poked around there for about an hour so Jackson could see the dinosaurs. Peppa Pig talks about going to the museum to see the dinosaurs, so Jackson has been asking to go too. After the museum, we poked around the Christmas Markets in the area, and then walked clear back across town for an early dinner at Demel Cafe. Rick Steve’s has this cafe listed on his Vienna tour, so I wanted to give it a try.
The place was a mad house. The downstairs level was full, so they sent us upstairs. The steward was going to show Ramesh where the elevator was (for the stroller) while Jackson and I went up the stairs. There was a LONG line in the stairs. I could see Ramesh still standing at the bottom of the stairs, and I knew that he was starving. He would not want to wait in this long line. We came straight back down the stairs. When Jackson and I got there, Ramesh was gone. I went up front to search for him. I thought I saw him go outside, so we went outside, but I lost him. I went back inside and asked another worker to help me find my husband. She showed me how to get to the elevator. We went up to the upstairs dining room. Ramesh was not there. The stroller was not there, and the wait staff had not seen him. Jackson and I went to every floor the elevator went to, and then we went back inside. The same steward was not sure where Ramesh was, but a kind customer standing in line told me that he just went up the stairs looking for us. We finally connected. We were both pretty frazzled so we met back up outside, and grabbed a hot dog and pretzel from a street vendor for dinner.
We then walked to the Rathaus Christmas Market. This market was huge, but I would have to agree with my friend, Heather. It is really geared toward the tourists. Not much we were interested in. It seemed a bit ‘cheaper’ than the other markets we had been to. We tried the soup in a bread bowl. It was just not good. We also tried an apple strudel, a waffle topped with bananas and chocolate sauce, and a Sachertorte. No complaints there.
We stumbled upon the D tram, that took us directly to our hotel. My sore feet were so thankful!
Once in Budapest, we went straight to the Hard Rock Cafe in the city center. Ramesh and I shared a classic hamburger and nachos. Jackson had the chicken tenders on the guitar plate – he was so tickled with that plate.
We did a bit of shopping in the Rock Shop before heading out onto the square.
The temperature hovered around freezing. No snow, but we really needed to bundle up! Ramesh wanted to look stylish, and refused to wear his warm (not very stylish) gloves or boots. Needless to say, he was freezing!!
Ramesh found the Bank-o-Mat (ATM), and got us a bit of local cash.
The market was beautiful. It was well laid out in the square, with most of the food options gathered on a center stage, and the actual shopping was on ground level in a circle all around the stage.
The food looked amazing! Unfortunately, we ate at Hard Rock and had no room for anything more. We did take a Chimney Cake away for later. I would not recommend doing that – eat it while it is fresh and hot!
We enjoyed our time in Budapest so much, we did not even remember to stop at Starbucks! We were 30 minutes outside of the city, on our way to Vienna, when we remembered. We talked about going back, but decided to keep moving forward.
We popped into neighboring Bratislava, Slovakia and picked up our newest Starbucks mug. I also picked up a Clinique fragrance set at 20% off! (Merry Christmas to ME!)
Back on the road, we headed to Vienna – arriving around 9:00pm. What a LONG day!
We spent a Saturday afternoon learning how to make Corn Soup, Filipino Egg Rolls (Lumpia), Chicken Curry, and Beef and Broccoli.
It was a fun time learning a few new recipes and seeing how others operate in their kitchen. We got tips on what cuts of beef to buy, and where to get it.
We started by marinating the beef in soy sauce, fresh ginger, and sesame oil. We set that aside while we cooked the corn soup and chicken curry.
We learned that we can get fresh phyllo at the local market…which is much better than the frozen stuff at the grocery store. This host only uses fresh ginger and garlic. She uses Fish Sauce and Sesame Oil, and prefers Kikkoman brand Soy Sauce.
We had fun rolling the lumpia. There was a bit of teasing about how each of us rolled. Mine were too fat, Jim’s all had broken edges, and Ramesh believes his were just right.
The egg rolls were fried in hot oil, and served with a mango sweet and sour sauce.
We finished up the beef and broccoli, adding hot peppers to half – for those who like to live on the wild side, and sat down again to wrap up the meal. Of course, Ramesh asked about dessert. A nice dessert option would be to wrap some banana in the phyllo dough with honey and cinnamon and deep fry. (apples would be nice too!)
We started our Thanksgiving planning early this year. We invited all of our local friends and colleagues. We ordered key supplies (crackers, Jif corn bread mix, Crisco, etc.) in advance. We traveled out of country to pick up a Butterball turkey.
We set the menu: Turkey, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy, Stuffing, Sweet Potatoes, Butternut Squash, Green Beans, Corn Pudding, Macaroni and Cheese, Buttermilk Biscuits, Applesauce, Cranberry Sauce, and Pumpkin Pie, Apple Cake, Chocolate Tarts, and Brownies for dessert. (we also made chocolate ice cream, but forgot to set it out until most everyone had left)
There are no Petz Ritz frozen pie shells here, so we had to make our own – from scratch.
Also, no canned pumpkin – so we brought that from home. (You can cook your own butternut squash, but the consistency is not consistent…so bake at your own risk)
Must have Buttermilk Biscuits. I’ve not found buttermilk, so I add some vinegar to the standard UHT milk, and it seems to work just fine.
Our oven is actually in our kitchen (others have ovens in their basements or garages), and while not a full sized oven, it did fit a 16 pound turkey. I did a dry brine the night before, and stuffed it with Grandma’s sage stuffing on Thursday morning. I will confess that I lost a bit of sleep wondering about the availability of celery…but it was all for nothing…celery was available and fresh.
Last year, a colleague made mulled wine for a party. He agreed to share his recipe, so I pulled it out this year. It is quite nice. I do not have a hot beverage dispenser, so I dusted off the soup tureen. It worked just fine…but I did put a Bunn Airpot in my Amazon shopping cart the next day.
I pulled out all of the dishes we would be using and set up the buffet to make sure I had space for everything. I typed up a menu card, and used a place cards to mark food that may be unfamiliar to our guests.
The tables were set up on Wednesday, and we cooked all afternoon. The goal was to get all of the side dishes made and the kitchen cleaned up, so on Turkey Day, we could just focus on the stuffing, bird, potatoes, gravy…and reheating everything. So glad we did it that way…there is just not enough time to do it all in one day!
There was just enough time to take a few photos before the fun began.
An ‘after’ shot…after we enjoyed all of the delicious food!
Ramesh and I are thankful for all of these lovely people. They enrich our lives most every day.
More lovely guests…so thankful for each and every one. As we went around the table, sharing what we were each thankful for, one guest explained that her grandparents used to live in my house. She did not realize it until she pulled up to front of the house! What a flood of fond memories…she welled up in tears.
Ramesh’s soccer friends arrived late, and stayed late. No complaints here…a good time was had by all. (and they make Ramesh happy, which makes me happy!)
Once all the food was cleaned up, I Skyped with my family back home. I sure do miss everyone!