My Journey into the Kitchen: “The Great Outdoors”

 

Loosely translated Al Fresco dining simply means “dining outside” in Italian.  In most places it is especially popular in summer months when skies are milky blue, days are long and lazy and majestic reddish sunsets cast their romantic glow far into the evening.  Dining outside can take place anywhere from parks to cafes to gardens or even in your own backyard.  It can be a totally casual experience like rustic picnics on a blanket or a formal affair atop a fancy city rooftop or poolside under striped patio umbrellas.

When I was growing up in southern Wisconsin, dining outside simply meant picnics: casual, relaxed, unpretentious meals at a neighborhood park or a nearby lake.   I clearly remember my excitement when my mom and dad announced that we would be going to Palmer Park in my hometown of Janesville, WI for a picnic.  The anticipation grew as we piled into the family car already laden with blankets, jugs of lemonade and my mother’s green metal picnic basket packed with carrot sticks, deviled eggs, fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, potato chips, coleslaw and always…chocolate cupcakes.

 

Karen & I ready for a picnic

If we were lucky, we would sit at one of the park’s rustic picnic tables, but since those were always in demand especially on beautiful sunny days, we came prepared to sit on the grass. While my parents unpacked all the goodies and spread one of the blankets over a patch of lush green grass, my sisters and I would run off to play on the swings or my favorite playground apparatus, the merry-go-round.

 

Our picnic menu remained fairly consistent over the years.  The icing on the chocolate cupcakes might switch from vanilla to chocolate, but the rest of the items changed very little, which for kids – who value the familiar over the exotic – is usually a plus.  I was reminded of this “childhood doctrine” several years ago when I brought a new recipe for deviled eggs to my daughter’s Easter dinner.  The recipe was from a fellow Dames d’Escoffier member (women’s professional food and wine organization), Carol Smoler, who had brought them to a Dames’ potluck.

The eggs were a gorgeous magenta color from being soaked in beet water.  They still tasted pretty much the same, but the spectacular presentation was what had caught my eye, so I decided to deviate from my usual recipe and surprise everyone with colorful deviled eggs that I thought captured the pastel Easter palate. Deviled eggs usually disappear pretty quicky at these family gatherings, but not so with these.  No child came near them!  Even the adults looked at them rather suspiciously.  Needless to say, I decided that there are some recipes that are classics, and the versions that stray from the “usual”, need to be reserved for groups with more exotic appetites.

 

 

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In the summer my Brooklyn grandchildren, Neko and Isis, often come to visit me and their cousins Kingston and Kianna for a long weekend leaving their parents back in Brooklyn.  During these visits I always conduct some sort of a cooking class hoping to teach them some cooking skills as well as to just have some fun in the kitchen.   I first select a theme: one year Italian, one year Asian, and the last time was my mother’s picnic spread that I had grown up with.  I divide up the tasks, which when we did the picnic, was having two kids make deviled eggs (the REAL recipe) and two make fried chicken.  However, instead of frying the chicken – which can be messy and dangerous – I used a recipe from Abby Mandel’s Celebrating the Midwestern Table cookbook – a low-fat, oven-baked, crispy-crust, skinless breast.  I had made this recipe once before and remembered how delicious it was.  Baking also avoids the usual oil splatter which occurs when frying chicken – not to mention the oily mess that pretty much surrounds the whole cooking area.

Kianna and Isis making deviled eggs

We concluded our cooking session making chocolate cupcakes with Neko (my baker grandchild) in charge. Frosting cupcakes is a perfect family activity. It’s fun and often fosters a friendly competition of who can frost and decorate the most gorgeous cupcake. Finishing a cupcake with icing and sprinkles can change a simple cupcake into a showstopper – and this they all did.  The amount of icing and sprinkles was usually greater than the actual cake part of the cupcake.  But they were all beautiful!

Neko in charge of cupcake making

A big part of the pleasure – and sometimes the disappointment – of “al fresco” dining is the weather.  For this particular picnic, an evening rainstorm was predicted so we kept our fingers crossed as we packed everything up and walked to a park on the Lake Michigan lakefront, just three blocks from my condo.  Thankfully, it didn’t rain until much later that evening, but the winds were so fierce as to make it almost impossible to keep the paper tablecloth, napkins, and plates from flying off into the stratosphere.  Ultimately, we found enough rocks near the lake to weigh down all the paper goods so when our guests arrived – my daughter Candace and son-in-law Rob – we were ready to enjoy our picnic despite the wind.  Outside eating, no matter where, requires all good picnickers to come prepared for just about anything.

Kianna, Kingston, Isis and Neko fighting the Lake Michigan wind

Thelma’s Classic picnic menu also lives on at Convito.  We call it the Americano.  Each summer Convito offers Picnic Meals to Go with various menu selections all packaged complete with paper napkins & plastic utensils.  Customers order them for a wide variety of outside dining experiences from boat trips, business meetings, family gatherings and especially concerts at Ravinia, an enchanting 36-acre park music venue located in a suburb north of Wilmette in Highland Park, Illinois.  The primary venue is a seated open-air Pavilion, but most popular is the lovely sprawling lawn where picnicking has become an art.  Some of the picnickers go crazy and bring candelabras, crystal goblets, and a myriad of china plates to hold elegant picnic fare from pate and caviar to smoked salmon and lobster.  The “candelabra crew” might be sitting next to a more casual group of picknickers eating good old reliable hot dogs and potato salad.  Everything goes at Ravinia.  And for me and my daughter-partner, Candace, it is always exciting to see Convito’s rust colored shopping bags dotted over the entire lawn filled with one of our meals-to-go.  Such great advertising!

Ravinia picnic

 Side dishes for Convito’s “Americano” have changed over the years.  One of the items we have sometimes offered is a sophisticated reinterpretation of my mom’s classic cole slaw – a slaw we call City Slaw.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

City Slaw

1 ½ # julienned (thin) cabbage
12 oz. baked ham thinly julienned into 1 inch length
12 oz. Gruyere thinly julienned into 1-inch lengths
2 cups (packed) julienned spinach
1 cup julienned scallions (cut on diagonal)
2 tablespoons salt & pepper mix
1 ½ cups red wine vinaigrette
½ cup Gorgonzola

Mix cabbage, ham, Gruyere, spinach, scallions, salt & pepper

Mix vinaigrette (red wine vinegar and olive oil to taste) with Gorgonzola and fold into salad

 

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As important as the choice and preparation of all the food and accoutrements are when planning a picnic, the art of packing and transporting it to a distant location is one of the most critical and undervalued challenges in guaranteeing a successful meal.  It demands forethought, organization, the acquisition of a few critical pieces of picnic gear and a consistently underappreciated amount of effort.  One picnic that I was lucky enough to attend many times was my sister, Karen, and brother-in-law Jeff’s lobster picnic in coastal Connecticut.  Their forethought and effort were amazing and always resulted in what I consider to be the ultimate picnic experience!  The destination was Roton Point, located on Long Island Sound in Rowayton, Connecticut, a casually elegant swimming, sailing, and tennis association known for its views and its friendly informality.  It was the furthest thing you can think of from a stuffy East Coast country club scene, and that atmosphere alone made it worth the trip.  But it was really the food – oh the food – that made it so memorable.  Before we could feast though, they first had to create the perfect picnic environment.

Jeff would usually drive over early in the morning and claim a prime picnic table (or two, depending on the size of the group) close to the water by clipping down a tablecloth, then head back home to prepare the meal with Karen and gather supplies.  Later in the day after all the food, drink and picnicking supplies were prepped, we would drive back over to Roton Point and park their packed-to-the-gills minivan up the hill in front of a beautiful turn-of-the-century restored hotel where we would unpack a crazy amount of “stuff”.  Karen would immediately go to work setting the table, first laying out her red bandana patterned tablecloth with a vase or two of fresh flowers from her garden.  At the same time, Jeff went to their storage locker to bring out folding chairs for all the guests.  Arranging the pots and pans, the plates and bowls, the silverware, glasses, the food and of course, the bar came next.  Jeff’s beverage selections depended on the food being served and the guest’s drink preferences, and he always made a point of knowing those preferences – always the perfect host. A Butler trait!  Standard fare for lobster night was usually white wine, beer and Margheritas.

Karen, Rob Barocci and Rob Warner sharing a pre-dinner drink at Roton Point

After the guests arrived and were settled with drinks in hand, appetizers were served.  My favorite was what we eventually called “Tessa’s Bruschetta”.  Tessa was Karen and Jeff’s granddaughter.  Their daughter, Elizabeth would bring Tessa every summer from her home in Seattle to stay with her grandparents for six weeks.

Tessa with her Bruschetta

The time frame usually corresponded with a Food show I attended each summer in New York, so I was lucky enough to come to Connecticut and spend time with all three of them.  Tessa was the Brussat sister’s very first grandchild, so we all vied for her attention. That fact alone made her special, but other things did as well. Tessa was wise beyond her years and had the most sophisticated palate I have ever encountered in a child.  The summer we “conferred” on making her bruschetta, she was probably 8 or 9 years old.  Not only was her recipe delicious but as was always the case with Tessa, it was such fun acting as her assistant.  So many laughs.  Her sense of humor was also way beyond her age. *

 

© rob warner photography 2022

 

The next course was “steamers”, clams that were steamed over 2 inches of water in a pot that Jeff placed on the burner of his old camp stove, another item he always transported to the site. Once the clams were open (usually after 5 minutes), we all moved to the picnic table where we were each served a plate of clams, along with small bowls of water to rinse off the sand from the clams and of course, individual bowls of melted butter for dipping.

Enjoying steamers

While we were enjoying appetizers, drinks and our first course, the water to cook the lobster was slowly coming to a boil on a grill next to our picnic spot.  Jeff would carefully lower the fresh lobsters into the pot and keep an eye on them while he made the rounds and topped off everyone’s drink.  In the meantime, Karen was busy putting out the side dishes and refreshing the table after our first course.  Eventually Jeff would then pull the bright red lobsters from the pot and distribute one to all the guests along with shell-crackers and tiny forks for pulling the rich meat from the shells.  Karen would hand around more bowls of melted butter and pass out dinner rolls, corn on the cob and usually a salad like coleslaw, potato salad or often both!

Rob Barocci with lobsters

It was always such a luxurious experience sitting at a picnic table on Long Island Sound savoring rich, sweet lobster and all the other trimmings. It felt very elegant to me but as my sister has reminded me, it was an extremely messy meal.  She and Jeff were up to their elbows in dripping water as they cracked the lobsters onto each individual plate.  They made sure to bring along lots of paper napkins and several rolls of paper toweling. Amazingly, they always appeared calm and relaxed giving their guests the impression that this wonderful picnic was all quite effortless. And despite all the labor and mess, it was clear that they enjoyed themselves as much as their guests.  Dessert concluded our evening – usually cupcakes or angel food cake piled high with strawberries and whipped cream.

 

The bad news with this picnic business is the clean-up.  Packing up the car in the dark, followed by unpacking, cleaning, and storing all the gear and leftovers back at their home was exhausting.  Sometimes we did all that right when we returned, but often – especially if the night went long – they just brought everything into the house, put the boxes of equipment and pots and pans on the kitchen floor and left the final washing up for the next morning after they had recharged.  Honestly, I don’t know how they did it. But the work never seemed to deter them.  From April to October, they made their way to Roton Point sometimes just by themselves, sometimes with family and sometimes meeting fellow member friends.  Although this “ultimate picnic” of steamers, lobster, and everything else was reserved for special occasions, they made an event out of every meal they served there whether it was simple sandwiches or their multi-course lobster feast.  Whatever they brought– Karen and Jeff certainly had picnicking down to a science.

Karen holding fish for another Roton Point picnic

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Picnics are not the only form of “al fresco” dining.  One doesn’t always have to pack up and go somewhere carrying food and beverage with them to enjoy an outdoor dining experience.  Eating in close proximity to where the food is being prepared like in a backyard or by a pool or even a tent is much easier and just as fun.  My very first experience of this kind of “al fresco dining” (though this was certainly not the name we gave to it at the time) took place in northern Wisconsin during our annual summer camping trips.

Ray

As a boy, my father spent lots of happy days on the many lakes around his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It was his desire that his family should have that same kind of lake experience, so every summer we packed up the car and headed north for a two-week encounter with the outdoors.  In the beginning we rented a small cottage on one of the lakes, but it wasn’t long before my father wanted a more rustic, more immersive experience with nature and something just a little more in keeping with his modest teacher’s salary. Thus entered the family tent!  Even though we had traded a structure for a flimsy piece of canvas as our shelter, comfort was still a priority, so he ended up purchasing lots of equipment from the local Army Navy store to make our temporary home-away-from-home in the Wisconsin wilderness as “homey” as possible.

My mom & sisters at Franklin Lake

 The Franklin- Butternut campground in the Nicolet National Forest was the area we most often pitched our tent.  Franklin Lake was a relatively shallow, very clear lake with a sandy bottom great for both swimming and fishing. My father loved to fish, which he did alone or with our mother, but occasionally he would take one of his “girls” along to teach us how to bait a line and how to patiently wait for the fish to bite.  Truth be told, my memory of fishing was that it required a tremendous amount of patience, but I so loved being with my dad hoping to make him proud with whatever kind of fish I might catch (or not), that the sometimes-boring time spent just sitting in the boat staring at the gentle ripples in the water, was in the end, totally worth it.

Ray with catch of the day

Each campsite had a picnic table and a designated fire circle.  Our father also brought along a portable gas-fired grill with two burners.  No matter the weather, this little area right next to our olive-green army tent served as our kitchen, dining room and family gathering room for the whole time we spent in the north woods.  Often, we had pan-fried fish (always my dad’s catch) for dinner.  He would bring back various type of fish including lake trout and bass, but I most vividly remember the perch.  My dad would season and flour each fish and then fry them in butter on his gas grill.  Perfectly browned, they had a sweet, delicate taste, but unfortunately, what I remember most about eating perch was the tremendous number of bones I encountered in every bite!  But following our mother’s warnings to chew very carefully, we got through the meal.  Though tasty, it was not a very relaxing dinner for us girls. I usually filled up on the rolls and my mother’s creamy coleslaw.

One of my favorite Northwood’s memories was going into Eagle River – a little town about a half hour from our campsite – to buy souvenirs at the local gift shop. After we selected something that we absolutely did not need (to this day I still embrace silly mementos as a critical component of any vacation experience), we would stop at the local Dairy Queen for a creamy ice cream cone.  Then on the way home, my father made it a tradition to go check out the black bears…at the local dump.  Even though they looked so cuddly – like my teddy bears –even at a young age, I knew that “cuddly” was not what I would encounter should I come face to face with one of them.  We remained extremely quiet during our daily viewing.

I have almost exclusively fond memories of many of our trips to the north woods – the smell of bacon cooking in the morning; the peppery, minty scent of pine trees; the magic light of fireflies at night; berry picking in the woods; and long walks in the forest with the whole family.  However, one of those long walks in the woods resulted in a rather terrifying experience.  I was only 11 or 12 at the time when my father, our hike leader, accidentally stepped on a wasp’s nest built under a fallen log in the middle of our path.  Even though he stirred up the nest, it was me right behind my dad, who received the “stings” from the wasp’s anger.  They pretty much found every part of my body not covered by clothing.  All I remember is the loud frightful buzzing sound and swats from both my mother and father frantically trying to get them off me.  I think they ended up receiving just as many wasp stings as I did.

It wasn’t just that wasp experience that soured me on “roughing it”, there were plenty of other issues that prevented that transformation.  I didn’t like waking up in a damp tent on a cold or rainy day, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes or black flies at dusk, or having to walk down a long path to the “comfort station”.  Those things just made me long for the comfort of a “real” bed, not a cot; an indoor bathroom, not a “comfort station”; and the ability to turn up the heat or turn on the air conditioner when the temperature got in the way of a good night of sleep.   Does that make me a spoiled brat?  I never thought so, but I suspect some true campers might say otherwise!

However, I am happy to say that even though I did not get the camping gene, it did, in fact, pass to my son who every year looks forward to meeting a friend in Colorado where they backpack into the mountains, fly fish, ascend mountain peaks, and have a true outdoor adventure, setting up camp wherever they might find themselves at the end of the day. A true backcountry experience.  His Grandpa Brussat would be proud!

Rob and friend Dean in Zirkel Wilderness, Colorado

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My distaste for roughing it aside, I do love many outdoor experiences, particularly those close to home like grilling in my backyard.  Until well into the 1940’s outdoor grilling happened mostly at campsites and public parks where you would find firepits and iron grill stations.  But shortly after World War II in the 1950’s the middle class began moving to the suburbs where backyard grilling became the rage.  And it was in the late fifties that I clearly remember my family’s first grilled dinner sitting at a picnic table in the screened in porch extension that my father added to our garage.  It was exciting!  My dad did all the barbequing, specializing primarily in grilled chicken.  His secret was marinating the chicken in bottled Italian dressing for several hours before he placed it on the charcoal grill. That marinade infused the chicken with flavor and made sure that it stayed extra juicy and tender.  My mom made the accompanying dishes, usually some kind of potato casserole and a salad or two.

 

I continued that summer tradition of grilling in all my adult homes which had their own backyard.   When the suburban Chicago town of Glencoe became my home during the eighties, I was lucky enough to have a beautiful yard with a pool and loved to have dinner parties as soon as the long Chicago winters thawed out enough to make it possible to enjoy the outside without wearing  a down jacket.  Whether they were big or small; with family or guests; casual (brats on the grill), elaborate (a multi-course regional Italian dinner – grilled steak and Tuscan beans – Tuscany “A Region for all Seasons”) or so large we actually had press coverage of it (the Riviera Party my good friend Leslee Reis and I had –  “My Culinary Village”), I used those same picnic lessons learned early in life: plan ahead, be ruthlessly organized and always assume the meal will take more time and effort that you expect.  When I did those three things, I almost always was able to enjoy the food and at least part of the time spent with my family or guests.

Bob at the grill

Though brats and steak are gilling staples for me, chicken continues to be one of my favorite things to barbecue.  Almost everybody loves it (when done well) and there are countless recipes to choose from.  One I especially love is the below recipe which combines the hot just-off-the-grill chicken with a cold relish placed on top just before serving.  It is delicious and so summery!  I usually make simple herb and olive oil roasted potatoes to accompany it.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Chicken Provencal
(Serves 12)

12 grilled chicken breasts
1 cup red onion, chopped
2 cups pitted kalamata olives
3 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup capers, drained
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Mix red onion, olives, tomatoes, capers, and garlic together

Mix vinegar and olive oil and fold into the relish and add salt & pepper to taste.

Spoon relish on top of warm chicken breast

Garnish with chopped parsley and fresh basil

 

 

Another summery dish that goes well with chicken or beef is a peach and tomato salad.  I believe I first had it at one of the picnics I enjoyed at Roton Point.  It is best when peaches are in season.  My sister Karen and I discussed the ingredients.  We liked it with arugula or fresh basil.  Both are delicious and make a very refreshing summer salad.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Summer Tomato Peach Salad

½ pound ripe beefsteak tomatoes, cut into wedges
½ pound ripe peaches, pitted and cut into wedges the same size as the tomatoes
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoons honey
Salt & pepper to taste
Small fresh basil leaves torn or julienned

Combine tomatoes, peaches, red onions in a bowl

Whisk together vinegar, olive oil and honey and drizzle over salad

Add salt and pepper to taste

Sprinkle with fresh basil

 

The very easiest way to enjoy outside dining is to go to an outside cafe and let the restaurant chef do the cooking and the waiter serve you the food.  Order a glass of Rosé (the most popular summer wine), sit back, relax, and just breathe in the summer air.  Although outdoor dining has existed for a long time in many parts of the world, especially in areas that enjoy longer periods of warm weather, the kind of outside cafe we are now used to is a more recent phenomenon.

First Outside Cafe at Convito

When I opened my first Convito in 1980, there was almost no outdoor dining in the Chicago area.  Their popularity slowly grew as restaurant after restaurant saw this as a way to please their customers as well as a way to increase their revenue during the warm weather months.  With this new phenomenon, a whole industry evolved specializing in outfitting these ever-expanding outside cafes: suitable tables and chairs, heat lamps and every kind of planter known to mankind, many of which served as “walls” to encase the cafes and make them seem more like private dining areas.

Once I decided I wanted to join this movement, I knew that the next step was to get an outside dining permit from the Village of Wilmette.  When I went to my local City Council meeting where I had to state my reasons for opening an outside cafe, I was stunned at the opposition I faced from many of Convito’s neighbors. “It will draw a rowdy crowd”, “Motorcycles will be roaring up and down our beautiful lakefront Sheridan Road”, “Loud music will keep us up all night” were just some of the comments.  In other words, in their minds, the sweet, romantic outside cafe I envisioned would only create total chaos.  We did, however, despite the objections, get our outside cafe permit.  And today outside cafes exist all over the area.

Convito Outside Cafe in 2021

Although many of the items on our menu – iconic dishes like Pappardelle Bolognese and Steak Frittes – remain there throughout the year, lighter more summery dishes are the most popular during the al fresco months.  Chicken Paillard (a crispy, boneless chicken on topped with an arugula salad – blog Lombardia IV “A Tourist of a Different Sort) returns every summer as does Insalata Caprese (tomatoes and fresh Mozzarella – blog Campania II “Rugged, Rocky, Robust”).  Our summery version of grilled salmon is also incredibly popular.  It is cooked with lemon and dill, two very light and summery ingredients. We serve it with a summer rice pilaf.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Lemon-Dill Grilled Salmon

4 (6 ounce) salmon fillets
1 lemon sliced into thin rings
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1tablespoon lemon zest

Pre-heat coals for an outdoor charcoal grill, gas grill or indoor grill pan to medium heat.  (about 350 to 400 degrees)

Mix the lemon, olive oil, dill, salt, pepper, garlic and lemon zest and spread onto the salmon.

Oil the grill and place the salmon on the grill.  Cook for 4-5 minutes per side

Remove salmon and allow to rest for 4 to 5 minutes.

Garnish each piece with lemon rings and serve

 

Whether you call it outdoor dining, picnicking, or dining al fresco, simply enjoying a meal outside is now very much a part of our everyday life.  And with the pandemic of the past few years, it is even more prevalent.

Before COVID descended upon us, the American dining experience had been a study in comfort.  Customers wanted to be snug in the winter and cool in the summer.  They wanted perfect ambient lighting and soft music filling the air.  Even eating outside had certain comfort requirements and they all but expected us to provide ideal weather conditions: not too hot and not too cold, not too much wind and they even expect us to keep the regional insect population in check.  We are often blamed for any bees, flies or mosquitos that might interrupt a customer’s dining experience, as if we had personally invited them to dine with them.

However, that has all changed. Eating outside was for a time during the pandemic, the only choice.  Restaurants were closed inside and had to think of creative ways to reopen while adhering to all the new rules of social distancing.  All kinds of new structures began to appear – mini greenhouses, igloo domes, wooden sheds, and tents of every shape and size. Most customers adapted to less than perfect outdoor conditions – sometimes even eating all bundled up in their puffer jackets and down coats.  They simply wanted to continue dining out and the confinement of the pandemic made everyone pine for human contact.

 

 

To this day the pandemic has altered many things about restaurants and diners forever.  Even in our still-uncertain future this bizarre period has proven that at least one thing has not changed: people want to connect with one another over a good meal.  They want to gather with family and friends.  And restaurants have always been one of the main facilitators of those kinds of connections.  As a result, diners are becoming more flexible, more willing to accept less than perfect dining conditions (up to a point!).

Al Fresco dining is here to stay.  Be it casual picnicking, firing up the backyard grill, or visiting an outside café; eating outdoors is energizing and good for the soul.  And I’m not alone in this belief!  After many years trying to keep up with our customers’ desire to dine outside in all but the chilliest winter months, Convito has expanded and revamped our outside café.  And on most nights – from early Spring through late Fall – it is one of the most popular places to eat outside on the North Shore.  Even rain doesn’t keep some customers away!  As long as they can tuck themselves under an umbrella or our awning, they often delight in being outside with a glass of wine, good friends and a delicious meal.  And on many nights, you will find me right next to them.

 

 

Tessa

*Tessa tragically passed away when she was eleven years old.  Her perceptive, inquisitive personally and loving nature will always have a profound impact on our family dynamic and I miss her every day.

 

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “Collaboration”

Jorge and I

The collaborative exchange of ideas I have shared with the many chefs who have worked for me over the years has had an incredibly significant influence on my culinary journey.  While I enjoy the serendipitous ways in which I search for and find recipes on my own (the focus of my previous post “Mixing it Up”), I also love discovering and creating new dishes alongside the professional chefs who work in my kitchens.

Since I opened my first Convito 41 years ago, I have worked with over 25 different chefs.  They each had their own style, their own depth of talent and their own background.  Some were with the company for longer periods of time, making more lasting contributions than others.  But for the most part, they have been happy, productive, and collaborative relationships.

When I collaborate with trained chefs my process generally follows an established pattern.   The collaboration starts when I bring a recipe or idea to them: something I found in a cookbook, saw in a food shop, or often from my own imagination.  Then we either make the dish together in the restaurant kitchen or the chef works independently with his team to develop it and then presents me with their first draft.  We then discuss the merits of their version, give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, and decide whether it needs small alterations or a wholesale rethink.  If we’re pleased, we almost always find a place for it on our menu either as an everyday item on the menu or a special.

Changes to our menu occur twice a year, both in the cafe and the market.  It is rarely a wholesale change, but I always seek to offer new dishes in all categories of our menus, from appetizers to desserts.  Innovative dishes allow the kitchen to evolve with current tastes and to take advantage of changing local ingredients.  It also reminds our customers that we are constantly thinking about ways to improve their dining experience.

Collaboration with my chefs is at its height during this period.  The first step in this process is an extensive testing period where we try new dishes – ones we believe will both fit the season and compliment the other dishes on the menu.  Since the chef still has a daily schedule to follow – cooking both lunch and dinner and attending to the operations of his kitchen – our testing is sporadic since it has to fit into his or her hectic day.

Rob Warner at work

Once we are finished with that part of the process, we schedule a final testing day where the chef presents each of the dishes. We critique each for taste, presentation, and balance relative to the overall menu.  Recently, our panel of critics consists of the chef, me, and my daughter and partner, Candace Barocci Warner.  Always hovering nearby is food photographer Rob Warner who also happens to be Candace’s husband.  He shoots each dish as it is delivered to the table as we wait impatiently for him to give us the thumbs up that he got the shot, which Candace will eventually use on our website or social media.

Candace and I

I have always left the creation of nightly specials up to the chef’s discretion.  This is pretty standard operating procedure within the industry, but I also do it because I believe that after our extensive vetting process, the chefs we hire must understand the language of our restaurants and I trust that that their specials will fit into our theme and focus.  Occasionally some have strayed from our principals, which is always a red flag for me.  The most memorable “deviation” was the infamous Banana Soup special at Convito Italiano’s Gold Coast location downtown Chicago.  I wasn’t in the restaurant the night it appeared, but I heard about it the next morning from my restaurant manager.  “Um, Nancy…is banana soup with cilantro and queso-fresco…um…Italian?” he asked.  Yikes!  I immediately found the chef and asked the same question.  “No”, he replied “but it’s so good.”  “Pad Thai, Jambalaya and bottomless margaritas are also good”, I pointed out “but this is an Italian restaurant and the specials need be at their core Italian.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have many chefs that were so clueless and that particular one didn’t last very long.  I don’t remember if he left on his own or had to be “escorted out” but after our Banana Soup discussion, I kept close tabs on his specials and eventually showed him the door.

Violet Calderelli

Violet Caldarelli

My very first chef, Violet Caldarelli was the chef who had the biggest impact on Convito food.  She not only contributed many of her own recipes (Violet’s Tuna, Pollo Impressivo “My Three Mentors”) but later as Convito’s catering director, she had an impact on every chef that followed in her footsteps.  She was invaluable to the development of Convito’s reputation for high quality food.  Her irascible but humorous personality never failed to (eventually) win over every chef that came through the Convito kitchen.  They all loved her spirit and more importantly, respected her experience and instincts. To this day, whenever I run into anyone who worked with Violet, they always speak highly of her mentorship and love to reminisce about their own “Violet stories”.  She had absolutely no compunction about speaking the unvarnished truth and her comments were often not just funny, but outrageous and imminently colorful.  “I said gently fold the dressing into the salad”, she reprimanded one sous-chef.  “You’re not folding, you’re in a battle with the ingredients and you’re bruising them. Stop!”

Edmund & Violet

Convito was lucky to have Violet for almost 30 years.  She was with us until she turned 94 – still slicing prosciutto, still bossing me around and still the best salesperson to ever grace Convito’s market.  She could sell you anything.  Customers who came in just for a pint of her tuna salad, left with a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, dessert, and often much more. “We just got in a new blackberry jam”, she would point out. “You must try it!”  And they always did.

Violet passed away a few years ago at age 103, but she will always be a part of the Convito spirit.  Even though the chefs Violet worked with knew she always had their back and that she would pitch in to help them whenever she was needed in the kitchen, they also knew that – God forbid – if they sent a dish out to the market that did not meet her high standards, back it went to the kitchen accompanied by a tongue lashing from Violet herself.

One classic Convito recipe that Violet was indirectly responsible for is Vegetale Fresca, among the first salads Convito sold out of our deli case. I hastily invented it one morning a few months after Convito opened.  I had arrived early to find Violet already in our tiny kitchen and immediately berating me about some expiring produce in our refrigerator.  Violet was brought up in an era where waste was considered unacceptable – even evil.  She had owned a school supply store that also sold lunches to the high school kids, so she was intimately familiar with what waste could do to the bottom line.  I could hardly get my coat off before she led me to her shameful discovery in the refrigerator.  “If this produce is not used today, you’re going to have to throw it all away!” she barked at me.   Rattled, I took it all out, placed it on the counter behind our deli, (In our first store, we had no kitchen), momentarily took stock of what was in front of me and quickly started chopping and julienning these “on edge” cucumbers, peapods, tomatoes and red onions, and came up with a salad that we still sell every day at Convito.   When I stepped back to appreciate what Violet had driven me to invent, I realized how beautiful it turned out!  I decided to dress it with a simple vinaigrette, adding dried oregano to make it more Italian. Vegetale Fresca was complete!

This dish falls into the “accidental” or “by chance” category like my partner Paolo’s Pollo Paesana sauce recipe which I wrote about in my previous blog.    And like Pollo Paesana, it is a real winner, especially because it can be made a day before we sell it and still maintain its delicious, crunchy quality.  It is always sold out by the end of every day.

© rob warner photography 2022

Vegetale Fresca

Ingredients
2 cups julienned carrots (2 inches long)
2 cups julienned zucchini
1 cup peapods, trimmed
1 cup peeled, seeded, julienned cucumber
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Vinaigrette
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the vegetables and parsley in a large bowl.
Combine the vinaigrette ingredients and whisk well.
Pour over the vegetables and mix well.

Edmund Beberdick

Naturally, other Convito and Betisé chefs would add to our ever-growing list of recipes. Though some brought their own ideas, more often than not new dishes came out of a need I saw in our menu and that I would challenge the chefs to address.  Edmund Beberdick worked as a chef at Trattoria Convito (downtown Chicago), Convito Italiano (Wilmette) and Bêtise (Wilmette) and this was primarily the way he and I worked together.  One afternoon I asked him to make a potato pizza.  I had just returned from Milan where I had a delicious one and though I didn’t have a recipe (pizza making occupies and entire sub-genre of Italian cooking and was one of my blind spots at the time) I thought it would be a natural fit for out menu.  I described to him the toppings which consisted of paper-thin slices of potatoes, mozzarella, parmesan, and rosemary and asked him to give it a shot.  That very day, he produced a divine potato pizza with a thin, crunchy crust, which we happily added to our list of specials and even sold it in the market from time to time.  Potato pizza remains one of my favorite pizzas and I credit Edmund for really nailing our version.

Our collaboration for the potato pizza recipe was featured in Restaurants & Institutions magazine, a trade publication in the foodservice industry.

Edmund and I in Restaurants & Institutions

During Edmund’s time in the Chestnut Convito location, he met a very pretty waitress – Elizabeth McShane -who later became a Convito restaurant manager and then catering director.  Their meeting resulted in the very first Convito marriage.  The second was my daughter, Candace and her husband, Rob Warner who met as co-workers while serving tables at Convito Cafe in 1990.  Rob is a self-employed photographer (www.warnerfoto.com) who today is no longer a server, but is in charge of all food photography for Convito.  Amore was in the air!

Violet, Elizabeth & Edmund

Another one of Edmund’s contributions to Convito is something we eventually named Beberdick’s Breadsticks.  They are simply breadsticks wrapped in bacon and served warm, but are divine (given they feature bacon there was no way they could be anything but delicious!).  But since it is a recipe best served immediately after preparation, we couldn’t sell them in our market. Instead we featured them as a catering item, but even then it was tricky.  They worked well when part of a very large order where the chef travelled with the food.  Then he could bake the breadsticks on site.  When that happened, the customer was always delighted and inevitably wished they had ordered more!  But the circumstances where a chef accompanies the food are infrequent, so we no longer offer them as a catering item, though I still personally make them for my own private entertaining. They’re addictive!

© rob warner photography 2022

Beberdick’s Breadsticks
(makes 60)

60 breadsticks
60 slices of bacon
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Lay the breadstick in the bacon slice lengthwise.
Wrap the bacon around the breadstick sealing by pressing down lightly and place on a cookie sheet.
Bake the breadsticks for approximately 10 minutes until the bacon is beginning to crisp.
While breadsticks are baking, mix the brown sugar and dry mustard in a small bowl
Remove from the oven and spread the sugar-mustard mixture over each breadstick, then return to the oven for approximately 5 minutes or until the bacon is crisp.
Allow to cool.  (They will be very soft when first removed but will crisp and get firm as they cool)

Kent Buell and Shawn McClain

Kent Buell was the first chef at Bêtise, my French Bistro.  He and his sous-chef Shawn McClain left their mark on Betise (and me) by cooking fresh and sophisticated-but-homey bistro fare with an emphasis on classic French bistro dishes, as well as a nod to contemporary American cuisine.  Kent had previously been the chef of a smaller restaurant in a neighboring Chicago suburb and Shawn came from a high-end hotel in Chicago.  Over the course of a few weeks before opening, we tested many different dishes and developed a menu that we were all very proud of.  But best of all, our testing sessions became an incredibly fun and collaborative experience that I believe made all three of us better cooks.  One dish I was committed to putting on our menu was inspired by my late friend, Leslee Reis and her renowned restaurant Café Provencal.  We recreated her classic French Onion Soup.  Another delicious dish was an item we named Hors d’Oeuvres Columbe d’Or  which was an impressive platter of salads and relishes for two in honor of one of my very favorite restaurants in St. Paul de Vence, France the Columbe d’Or.  I also wanted us to come up with our own version of Salade Lyonnaise, which I had recently tasted in Lyon, France and was the signature dish of the city.  The salad we created was very true to the classic version – friseé tossed in a dijon vinaigrette with with crispy bacon and croutons and a poached egg on top – but with our own twist. We added herring, anchovies and Gruyere cheese and nestled each ingredient to the side of the salad to be mixed in as the customer wished.  We described it as a regional French salad for your own mixing.

Kent Buell at a staff party with his baby & me

Kent and Shawn’s contributions were many, but one I am still particularly fond of is Salade Verte Bêtise, a salad of mixed greens tossed in a roasted garlic vinaigrette, garnished with crispy sweet onions and encased in a thinly sliced cucumber round holding the salad together like an edible cake ring.  Today Convito Cafe still has that salad on our menu, but we call it simply Bêtise Salad.

Kent eventually moved to Michigan where he opened a restaurant and Shawn is currently a James Beard Award winner and outstanding restauranteur owning some six renowned restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas.  I loved our time together and have been delighted with their continued success in this very tough business.

Chris Nugent

Chris Nugent

In the early 2000’s a very young, very talented chef came to Bêtise.  According to our current chef, Jorge Plata, that young man, Chris Nugent, was hands down the most creative and hardest working chef of the ten-plus Convito and Bêtise chefs that Jorge ever worked with.  Working as a prep cook and a line cook under Chris, Jorge recalls that during Chris’ 3 ½ year stint at Bêtise, Chris taught him everything from ordering product, managing food costs (a wildly underrated art), food presentation, and – most importantly – the best techniques for cooking and capturing the flavors of everything from green beans to salmon to pastries.  Chris was not only talented, but very generous with his experience and skills.

Our repertoire of excellent recipes was substantially amplified during Chris’s years.  I always looked forward to the days when he would call me to Bêtise to present the new dishes he proposed we add to the menu.  Each one had its own Chris Nugent signature while remaining true to the restaurant’s identity.  Our Caesar Salad was not just an ordinary Caesar Salad, but was Chris’ reinvention where the greens were encased in a crisp Parmesan cup he had baked earlier in the day.  His beet salad was one made with roasted beets paired with arugula and tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette.  It was not only delicious, but spectacular to look at.  The glistening red and yellow vegetables were fanned out across the plate and then tucked under the arugula.  It was artistic but simple.  And most importantly…delicious.

Chris’s incredible work ethic was never more evident than in the Thanksgiving combo meals he put together for that holiday’s take-out menu.  Bêtise was not open on Thanksgiving Day, nor did it specialize in take-out like its sister restaurant Convito Italiano.  But as the business grew, Chris wanted to offer our loyal customers some sort of Thanksgiving take-out.  Once we decided to go for it, he furiously went to work.  Being the professional that he is, Chris didn’t just start cooking, but instead sketched out a preliminary menu and then tried to figure out whether he and his staff could actually execute making, organizing and storing those meals all while attending to keeping the restaurant running without compromise.

For six days before Thanksgiving, Chris and his staff worked around the clock, ovens going 24 hours a day.  Our “Combo Dinners” included butternut squash soup, a whole roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, a green vegetable (I can’t recall exactly what though!) and pumpkin cheesecake for dessert.  Once the word got around, orders flooded in. Customers knew that if Chris was cooking it, the meal would be outstanding.  Days after announcing the project we had already reached our limit and had to cut the orders off at fifty since we didn’t have room to store any more than that.  Chris offered these combo meals for the three Thanksgivings he was chef at Bêtise and though the entire staff was exhausted by end of that week, they also remember how thrilled our customers were and what a distinctive take-out experience he had created.  To this day customers who were lucky enough to get one of those meals remain disappointed that we no longer offer them, but Chris was one-of-a-kind, and no other chef has been bold (or foolhardy?) enough to undertake the task since then.

Chris’s seasonal specials were also fantastic.  He made sure to develop good relationships with local farmers even before it was hip to do so, and was always on the look-out for the latest and best produce of the season.  One of my favorites was his autumnal mushroom risotto.  Abby Mandel, cookbook author and food columnist, ordered that particular special on one of her many visits to Betise and later asked Chris if he would be willing to share the recipe for inclusion in her Sunday Chicago Tribune column.   As Abby wrote, “I agree with Bêtise Chef Christ Nugent – wild mushrooms are a compensation for the end of summer.  It feels good in cooler weather to segue into the earthy, robust cooking that mushrooms celebrate.”  I agree whole heartedly.

© rob warner photography 2022

Bêtise Risotto
(6 appetizer or 4 entree servings)

Mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup each: chanterelle, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, halved, or 1/4 cup dried chanterelle, shiitake and oyster mushrooms reconstituted in warm water
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Risotto
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup shallots, finely chopped
1 pound Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
8 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock, or 1 large can (49.5 ounces) and 1 small can (14.5 ounces) low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons dried herbs de Provence
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Mushrooms
Heat olive oil and butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook, stirring often, just until mushrooms begin to lightly caramelize, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; transfer mushrooms to bowl. Set aside.

Risotto
Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots; cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add rice; cook, stirring constantly, until rice turns milky opaque white, 5 to 7 minutes. Add wine; cook until almost completely absorbed, about 3 minutes. Add 1 cup of hot stock to rice, stirring often. Add another cup, stirring, until liquid is absorbed. Repeat process until there is only 1 cup left, about 20 minutes. Stir in final cup of stock, mushrooms, remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, herbs de Provence and Parmesan cheese. Cook 2 minutes; remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon risotto into 4 large warmed shallow soup bowls. Pass more Parmesan cheese.

Chris currently owns his own Michelin Star restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Square area named Goosefoot.  The food is innovative American fare and as anyone who has had the pleasure to eat it will attest, it is out of this world.

Bêtise Chris Nugent with Convito chef Cory Grupe at Green City Market

These seasonal recipes were typical of Chris’ style.  He made it a priority to make weekly visits to Chicago’s expanding list of farmer’s markets which were becoming more and more popular in the U.S, especially in the Midwest where our growing season is limited due to out longer winters.  Seasonality and sustainability would become buzzwords in the restaurant business and would eventually play a big role in nightly specials in restaurants all over America.  In 1998 my close friend Abby Mandel who had lived and worked in many French restaurants over the years, became determined to open in Chicago the same kind of farmer’s market she had visited while working in France. In Europe the idea of eating local and fresh has never gone out of style and she was inspired to create the Green City Market.  It is her legacy and continues to thrive in both Lincoln Park and the West Loop.  I was lucky enough to accompany her during one of her visits to Provence, France and witnessed her passion firsthand.  Abby was already a celebrated cook and author, but the promotion of products from local farmers became her mission.  That passion has had a lasting influence on chefs throughout the city, mine included. 

I was also lucky to visit many of Italy’s incredible food markets.  My favorites were those in Venice, Bologna and Rome where the sight of glistening fish, colorful vegetables and a huge assortment of other food products like sauces and breads, cheeses, salamis and sweets inspired me to think about all the dishes that one could cook with each of those products.  I have one recipe in particular that is a market-inspired pasta dish in one of my regional blogs (Umbria “The Girls”). During a visit to a market in Orvieto with my sister Karen we collaborated on a meal to celebrate her birthday.  After our market visit, we came back to our farmhouse villa just outside of Todi loaded with all the good things we had seen at the market – fresh pasta, tomatoes, bread, etc.  We cooked a delicious pasta dish I named “Sister Karen’s Umbrian Birthday Pasta”

me at Farmer’s Market

Not only does shopping at local farmer’s markets allow one to create dishes infused with fresh flavors and to support sustainability, but for me it is also an incredible way to generate new ideas.  Inspiration evolves with every change of the season.  Leafy greens and slender stalks of asparagus always inspire me during the spring season, whereas multi-colored heirloom tomatoes never fail to catch my imagination in the summer.  I am first and foremost a tomato kind of gal and the best time for tomatoes – at least in the Midwest – is near the end of summer and I always try to buy as many tomatoes as possible during that short season.  I make salads and sauces while they are available and make a simple tomato sauce which I freeze and enjoy during the winter.

In recent years, autumn has also produced many new vegetable surprises – especially in the squash family.  Butternut and acorn squash are now not the only kids on the block.  They have been joined by squashes and gourds that are striped, oddly shaped and weirdly named.  Being a big fan, I have tried many of them prepared in countless ways.  But I have still not found anything better than when they are simply baked with a dab of butter or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to bring out their earthy sweetness.

Paul, Janet, Candace and I after our Market Dinner

Two of my favorite “market-shopping-partners” were my friends Janet and Paul Alms.  During the market season we would meet on Saturday at the Evanston Farmer’s Market to gather produce for the dinners we would make back at my townhouse that evening.  Paul was always given the dessert assignment since he made one of the best pie crusts I have ever eaten.  While he headed towards the fresh fruit section to select plump blueberries or newly-ripened peaches for his pie filling, Janet and I perused the many vegetable booths trying to decide which bright shiny vegetables would be our choice for the dishes we would make that night.  Janet focused on the salad course which in the middle of summer most often included juicy red tomatoes, basil and whatever other ingredients caught her fancy.  Sometimes she also bought fresh mozzarella at the cheese booth to make a Caprese salad or would head toward the Kinnikinnick Farms booth to buy their bright shiny green arugula.  Kinnikinnick farms is located in Caledonia, Illinois and was one of our favorite farm stands.

Paul’s drawing of Farmer’s Market

After splitting up, we would then put our heads together to decide the meat that Paul would grill for our main course.  We loved brats, steak, pork tenderloin or even just plain hamburgers.

My role was usually to create the side dish.  Often, I did something with potatoes (my other favorite vegetable, second only to tomatoes).   During the market season I have created several market-inspired potato salads, some of which eventually found their way into Convito’s market salad selection.   The recipe below I called Potato Pepit-alicious.  It is delicious autumn-season potato salad.

© rob warner photography 2022

Potato Pepit-alicious

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes cut into cubes, roasted in the oven with olive oil and salt and pepper
1 cup crispy prosciutto
1 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
1 cup scallions sliced on diagonal
¼ cup minced fresh dill
2 cups arugula, chopped

½ cup olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix together and serve room temperature

Jorge Plata

Our current Convito Cafe & Market Chef is Jorge Plata.  Jorge came to Convito in 1997 and has moved through many positions at both Convito and Bêtise.  He started as a dish washer, graduated to prep cook, then line cook and eventually sous-chef.  He has worked under 10 different chefs and in 2017 became Executive Chef at Convito Cafe & Market.  No chef knows Convito better than he does and I am very lucky to have him running our kitchen.

His calm manner, intuitive cooking skills and hard work ethic has endeared him to the whole staff.  His kitchen is a happy kitchen and is one that works as a team.  They are serious about their work, but also have fun.  I know that when I come into the kitchen to test a new recipe, I will always have a good time because laughter is an integral part of our testing routine.

Sergio Palafox with vegetale fresca

One of my other key testing partners is another long-time Convito veteran, salad chef Sergio Palafox.  His infectious laugh and big smile make testing salads with him a delight (the fact that he is also a singer and front-man for a part band called Tenacidad is further proof of his joyous spirit).  Sergio has overseen Convito’s Market Salads for 13 years and he – like Jorge and most all the guys and gals in the kitchen – is incredibly fast.  While we are testing, I always make the comment that if I chopped vegetables at his rate of speed, blood would be an ingredient in our vinaigrette. That always get a big laugh.

Not too many chefs that I can remember have a great working relationship with the front of the house staff, but our waiters and the market staff all respect and love Jorge.  Sarka Timkovic, our restaurant manager, has been with Convito for 13 years and has worked with at least 5 different chefs during her time with us and she gives Jorge a gold star.  “Never do I have to worry about telling him if there is a problem.  He simply listens then handles it.”  She claims she has never worked with a chef who is so pleasant and talented and that is a big part of why she loves coming to work.

Jorge & I

All those many wonderful qualities that Jorge possesses are important to the success of a chef, but most important is the food.  And night after night, the meals that comes out of his kitchen are first class.  One of the many dishes he has perfected over the years is a popular lunch item in our café – quiche.  His is among the best I have ever had, and no one can replicate it.  When he was on leave we actually had to take it off the menu because, it wasn’t quite the same.  Once he returned we immediately put it back on the menu much to the relief of many of our customers.

© rob warner photography 2022

Jorge’s Quiche
Asparagus, Spinach, Sun-dried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese
(Serves 8)

15 eggs
1-quart heavy cream
½ cup flour
¾ tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

1 sheet puff pastry – 16” x 12” – defrosted
Flour

2 cups asparagus cut into ¼ inch pieces
2 cups baby spinach, chopped
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
½ cup of goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 300 degrees
Grease a 12” x 3” round baking pan with 2 tablespoons butter
Mix eggs, cream, ½ cup flour, salt and pepper until well blended.
Strains this mixture through a colander making sure it is totally smooth.

Place pastry sheet on a floured board, sprinkle with flour and roll to make it wider approximately 16” x 14”
Transfer the pastry into the pan and level the pastry with your hands into the bottom and sides of the pan (the crust should hang over the sides.  Jorge leaves it like this and cuts it after baking.)
Place the pan on a cookie sheet

Mix asparagus, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese together.
Place mixture in pan with pasty sheet
Pour in egg mixture.
Bake for 1 ½ hours in a 300-degree oven.
Remove from oven to cool slightly
Slice into 8 wedges*
Serve at room temperature†

*Jorge cuts additional crusts off edges of quiche then puts in into refrigerator
†When serving slices that have ben refrigerated, Jorge warms each quiche slice in the microwave for approximately 2 minutes.

Searching for new recipes is both the best and hardest part of my job.  As much as I love the contemplative part of this journey – sitting by myself, thinking of ideas while sipping on a glass of wine or paging through magazine or cookbooks – I also cherish the time I spend working with the many chefs that have graced the kitchens of Convito and Bêtise.  I have learned so much from them – sometimes a new technique, sometimes a new twist on an old recipe, sometimes an unexpected combination of ingredients – but what is the best part of that association, that collaboration, is getting to know them, their style and their personality.   They have made my recipe-searching adventure immeasurably more interesting and unquestionably more fruitful.  The food we create together is the fuel with which my restaurants flourish and their sprits continually enrich my life.

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “Mixing it Up”

I watched Paolo peering into my open refrigerator, arm draped over the door, scanning its brightly lit contents determined to select ingredients for the “delicious sauce” he had promised to make for dinner that night.  He had just arrived from Milan to help me get things organized for the opening of my new Italian market and wine shop that we had partnered to create.  After a long day at Convito stacking, sorting, cleaning and making sure the shelves and deli cases were full and neatly arranged for our opening the next day, we decided it was time to go back to my home in Glencoe for a well-deserved recharge. I was clearly exhausted, so Paolo volunteered to make the family dinner that night and allow me to just relax. “All you need to do is watch and enjoy a glass of wine while I do the cooking”, he said.

When he first offered to make dinner, I warned him that I had no idea what ingredients I had at my house and suggested we stop at a grocery store on our way home.  He declined and insisted that he would come up with something interesting to toss with the fresh pasta we had just made at Convito in our brand-new pasta extrusion machine.

After several minutes of pondering, Paolo chose a jar of green olives, a container of heavy cream, a package of chicken breasts, a slab of butter and a hunk of fontina cheese placing each item on the counter next to the can of tomatoes he had earlier pulled from my canned goods cupboard.  I was happy to relax and enjoy someone else’s cooking for a change.  I was also anxious to taste the fettuccine.  For over a week I had been unsuccessfully experimenting with several different recipes for the “pasta fresca” we would be selling in our market.  The one recommended by the company that sold us the extrusion machine was too dry.  Our next test turned out to be too moist, producing green mold in the center of our carefully crafted little fettuccine nests.  The recipe we were making the day Paolo arrived from Milan was from his mother Wanda, my other Convito partner. After learning of our problems finding the right recipe, Wanda had walked into a store in Milan that used the exact same pasta machine and in her usual bold manner, asked the owner if she could study and learn from them.  Probably shocked that someone had the audacity to be so intrepid, the store owners allowed her to stay and observe their methods and even had her taste the pasta they made at the end of the day.  Wanda was amazing!

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After months of planning and organizing, opening day was upon us and the question of whether our pasta would have the right texture and taste was overwhelmed by a bigger one – could this new venture be successful?  That answer would come soon enough.

Nancy with fresh spaghetti

The sauce Paolo “threw together” that evening turned out to be absolutely delicious.  Sometimes cleaning out the refrigerator can produce wonders.  Home cooks have been doing just that for years, putting together unexpected ingredients for many a delicious meal.  Paolo’s sauce was not only delicious, but unique and loved by my family so much that the next morning I insisted that we write down some sort of recipe.  But recipe writing was not Paolo’s forte.  He was a “spur-of-the-moment” kind of cook.  Fortunately, I had watched him make the sauce the night before, and eventually came up with something that was very close to what we had eaten that night.

Up to this point, most of Convito’s sauces were versions of classics like Bolognese, Tomato Basil and White Clam; recipes I had developed and tested in Milan with Paolo’s mother, Wanda.  But as time went on, we needed more variety and began inventing new sauces like Paolo’s to create more diversity in our offerings.  Paolo’s concoction was eventually named Salsa la Paesana and to this day it is still available in our sauce freezer.

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The story behind how Pollo Paesana came to be is one I have always referred to as an accidental recipe, but I no longer think that description is quite accurate.  Paolo didn’t accidentally make it – though it was certainly improvisational which might be why he has absolutely no memory of it – but he used his years of eating fine food and being in the presence of great cooks (his mother Wanda being the primary one) to influence his choice of ingredients and how he combined them.   Recently, when I informed him via email (he lives in Turkey) about the popularity of his sauce and reminded him of the night he created it, he told me “I do not remember that episode at all and I have never tried a pollo of that kind in the last 20 years.”  He all but denied responsibility for it, reminding me that his mother Wanda was a strong opponent of cream in any sauce because she believed a chef only adds cream to cover her mistakes.

Although Paolo doesn’t remember his creation at all (and I suspect thinks that maybe I made up the whole story), I know better because I was there!  And Convito and its customers are thankful for the wonderful sauce he made from what happened to be in my cabinet and leftover in my refrigerator that night almost 41 years ago- whether he remembers it or not.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Salsa la Paesana
Serves 4

 

1 pound fettuccine
4 ounces butter
½ cup onions, chopped fine
1 cup diced tomatoes
½ cup tomato puree
½ cup sliced green Manzanilla olives
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup fontina cheese, shredded
2 chicken breasts cooked al dente then diced into ½ inch cubes

 

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add onions.  Sauté until soft.

Add diced tomatoes and tomato puree and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes.  Add olives, basil, salt & pepper.  Bring to a simmer.  Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add cream and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add cheese, melt, stirring constantly.

Add cooked chicken.  Stir well.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add the pasta and cook until al dente.  Drain well and mix with the sauce

 

Since opening Convito Italiano in 1980, finding delicious and interesting new recipes for my market and restaurant has been a full-time job.  At one time I owned three Convitos (one in Wilmette and two in downtown Chicago) as well as my French bistro Betise, and each restaurant had different menus which changed at least twice a year. The process of finding new recipes that fit certain requirements – salads that stayed fresh for the day for the market cold case, dishes that could be taken home and reheated successfully for the hot food case, dishes for the cafe that matched the focus of the restaurant – was all-consuming for many months of the year.  New recipes are the lifeblood of a restaurant, so that task was an important and serious one for me.

My menu strategy when making changes was – and continues to be – that customer favorites and signature dishes should always remain available, but the rest of the menu will change in order to offer something new and exciting and to honor the differences in each restaurant’s location.  Our customers know they can always find Rigatoni Noci or Vi’s Tuna in Convito’s salad case, but also be introduced to the latest quinoa or farro salad.  Mama Mia Lasagna (with the classic ingredients of meat sauce, mozzarella and ricotta) was a mainstay in the hot food case, while more adventurous customers could select Mediterranean Lasagna with green olives and chicken or Rustic Lasagna with roasted red peppers, sausage and mushrooms.

The latest version of my original store and restaurant – Convito Cafe & Market – was opened in 2007 as a result of having to close our former location due to major structural problems in our rental building.  At that time, I was down to two restaurants – Convito Italiano and Betise – and both were located in Wilmette’s Plaza del Lago.  After exploring several new locations for Convito Italiano, we made the decision to combine Convito with Betise in an expanded location and rename it Convito Cafe & Market.  It is currently an 80-seat restaurant (including an outside cafe with an additional 60 seats during the warmer months) featuring both bistro and Italian fare with a market featuring an array of prepared foods, groceries, cheeses, deli meats, bread and sweets.  The market features mostly Italian dishes in the hot food case, while the salad case is more international.  Soup recipes vary from American Chicken Noodle to Italian Minestrone alla Genovese.  Sauces, however, keep their Italian focus.

The development of the recipes in our market have always been my responsibility and I can name the origins of almost every single one.  The restaurant is a little different.  When I open a new restaurant, I alone determine the focus and theme – casual Italian, regional, upscale Italian, French bistro – and then I will test dishes with the chef for what we plan to be our opening menu.   Daily specials I always leave up to the chef of each restaurant, but continue to stress the importance that those specials fit with the overall theme of each restaurant

 

eating with Paolo in a Piemontese restaurant

In the beginning, recipes for Convito came mostly as a result of my travels with partner Paolo to Italy’s 20 regions where we sought out restaurants most representative of a particular region’s cuisine.  Most of my early recipes were born of inspiration found in the various dishes I consumed in the hundreds of restaurants Paolo and I dined in all over Italy.  My favorite ones were usually those in the countryside – out of the way, family run places that focused on the food of the region.  Dining in rural Piemonte, in little establishments with limited menus that were tucked away in the shadow of the region’s storied vineyards was where many of my favorite food memories were made.  Often, I would try to duplicate the dishes I especially liked with Wanda in her Milanese kitchen or when she came to visit me in Wilmette.  And once I better understood regional Italian cuisine, I eventually felt confident testing recipes and creating new dishes all on my own (though it was always more fun with Wanda).

Wanda and I cooking at Convito

One dish I fell in love with was Pasta e Fagioli.  I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu.  It seemed to have a million different interpretations in every different Italian region.  My favorite versions were built around a rich broth with a few key ingredient(all of them contained pasta and beans – the meaning of pasta e fagioli) and often included pancetta and some ground beef.   After days of testing in my own home (Convito’s original kitchen was too small), I came up with a recipe combining my favorites.  My version is rich and hearty – similar to one I had in one of those small Piemonte countryside cafes.   We now serve this version at Convito.  (Lombardia I – Milano “Cooking with Wanda).

 

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Travel is inspirational, and especially exciting to me is the character revealed about any given country, region or city by the cuisine that represents it.  It reveals so much about so many things – the culture, the traditions, and the history of an area.  My thirty-seven posts on “My Italian Journeys” are an attempt to illuminate what I found special about all of Italy’s wide-ranging regional cuisine.  Most places I visited with my business partner, Paolo Volpara, but many were experienced with other friends and family.  My favorite traveling partners were those who had the same love of food that I have – those that understood that food can not only be delicious, but inventive and above all, inspiring.

Italy may have been where I began to understand the relationship between food and regional character, but those lessons served me in many other places as well.  Expanding my horizons to France, revisiting England, and assessing what is unique to American cuisine was also inspirational.  Learning about the food and culture of different countries has always been my best source for new recipes, whether it be attempting to recreate a dish or just being inspired by a new combination of ingredients or a novel presentation.  This process of continual exploration is the way I have kept the creative side of myself engaged and I believe is tantamount to what has kept my business thriving over these forty-plus years

Though this travel-based inspiration has probably resulted in the greatest number of the recipes I created, I have also come up with many by simply paging through cookbooks and food magazines.  A new recipe currently featured in our hot case (recipes meant to reheated in one’s own home) came to me from one of the Israeli-born, British chef, the talented Ottolenghi’s many cookbooks.  Italian and the southern French cuisine (especially Provence) have much in common with Middle Eastern cooking and though both are distinct from one another, they share many flavors and ingredients that were born in that part of the world.  Even though I don’t always use the exact same ingredients as a recipe I found in one of his books, my goal is to somehow catch that Mediterranean spirit he is so famous for and to make it my own.

The recipe below is a prime example.  It is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at as are many of his dishes.  We sell it in our market and featured it as a special in our cafe as a side dish served with Pesto-encrusted Rack of Lamb.  This one I appropriately named Sunshine Potatoes.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Sunshine Potatoes

 5# Yukon gold potatoes cooked al dente, put in fridge- sliced into wedges after chilled
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
½ cup olive oil
5 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 lemons, thinly sliced with seeds removed
salt & pepper combo
2 cups cherry tomatoes
2 cups kalamata olives
2 tablespoons lemon zest

On a roasting pan spread with the olive oil, place the potatoes, garlic, sage, lemons and salt and pepper.  Roast for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes & olives and roast for another 10 minutes

Toss with the lemon zest.

Serve immediately or at room temperature.  (This can be reheated)

 

Another source of inspiration for me has been to roam the great food markets of Europe and Manhattan. The incredible Peck’s food emporium in Milan – a landmark shop featuring fine wines, cheeses, meats & produce – has provided me with countless ideas for displays and to-go recipes.  Their layered cheese tortas especially caught my attention and in particular their Basil Torta consisting of thin layers of triple-cream mascarpone and semisoft robiola interspersed with basil and pine nuts.  Those particular cheeses have a very short shelf life so they need to be sold within hours of creation.  Peck is just steps from Milan’s famous Duomo right in the middle of the city, so the shop is always bustling with not only Milanese citizens, but visitors from all over the world and quick turnover is not a problem for them.  Convito attempted to make several different tortas at our Chestnut Chicago store in the mid-eighties, but the cost and shelf-life of the cheeses, plus labor costs forced us to reconsider our efforts.  We were not in the middle of the city with thousands of customers streaming through our store every hour, so consequently, we would end up having to discard a good portion of our tortas.  Several of our faithful customers were sad to see them discontinued (as was I), but I still make them on occasion for catering orders or for my own personal entertaining. The torta recipe I used more than any was one I named Torta Armani (blog Lombardia II “Milano – Street Smarts”)and it remains my very favorite.

My favorite food shop in America was always Balducci, the iconic Greenwich Village gourmet food store.  It provided me with a multitude of ideas especially for our market salad case.  I could stand for hours in front of their cases, studying the dishes that most interested me and trying to remember what I thought were all the ingredients in those dishes.  Everything looked delicious, but I didn’t dare take out a pencil and notebook.  Too obvious! And since smart phones at that time were not around – memorizing was my only method. Many of Convito’s early market salads were inspired by dishes I saw at Balduccis and though it didn’t take me long to want to completely invent my own dishes, I have to admit there might have been a few Convito salads back in the 80s that were all but identical to the wonderful creations I saw in their cases back then.

One salad that has been available at Convito almost since the day I invented it is simply called Antipasto.  One chilly fall afternoon in 1981 I remember seeing something very similar in their case and realizing it would be perfect at Convito.  I rushed outside and pulled out my notebook to try to record everything I could remember: slices of salami, cheese, tomatoes, artichokes, celery and pasta mixed together in a vinaigrette.  When I made my own version back at Convito, I substituted chickpeas for the pasta (we had enough pasta salads) and tossed it with our own vinaigrette, adding dried oregano to make it very Italian.  It is different from the Balducci’s version, but most certainly owes a debt to their original one.

 

© rob warner photography 2022

Antipasto

2 # genoa salami cut into 1x¼ inch pieces
4 cups fontinella cheese cut in same size
4 cups chickpeas, drained well
2 pints grape tomatoes sliced in half
4 cups artichoke quarters in water, drained and sliced in similar pieces to cheese
2 cups celery cut in same size pieces, poached

Toss all the above together

Mix with 1½ cups Italian vinaigrette

 

Less frequent, but incredibly important, has been the contributions of some of my friends to Convito’s menu.  Sometimes someone else’s dish is so perfect that I am compelled to ask for permission to use it in the store or restaurant.  Some of my favorites are Nancy Harris’s Ribollita (Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”), Dorene Centioli-McTigue’s Pappa al Pomodoro and Linda Calafiore’s, Autumn Orecchiette (My Journey into the Kitchen “Les Dames d’Escoffier – My Culinary Village”).  Linda’s orecchiette dish I tasted while visiting her in Carmel, California and Dorene’s Papa al Pomodoro at her Tuscan villa just outside of Cortona.  I simply asked them for their recipes and they shared them without hesitation.  I have been very lucky to have such creative and generous friends. I have also returned the favor over the years.

Other times, when I am trying to come up with new ideas for a particular category of recipe, I will remember something that I had eaten years earlier – often without knowing exactly when or where.  When I was trying to come up with a new butternut squash dish for the market for instance, I recalled an especially delicious dish I had eaten somewhere, many years before.  I wasn’t sure where or the exact ingredients, but I remembered it used butternut squash, tomatoes and gruyere in some sort of layered presentation.  Several experiments later, I came up with now one of Convito’s favorite fall dishes – Butternut Squash Gratin (My Journey into the Kitchen – “Christmas Changes”).

But my favorite – my very – favorite way to come up with a new recipe is from what I call steeping.  Steeping is the process by which I sit and think.  It might be in front of a fireplace with a glass of wine in hand or perhaps lounging on a chaise basking in the sun, but it is always a quiet place where I can lose myself in uninterrupted thought and dream.  My last “steeping” session was while I was having an MRI and I actually came up with ideas for five new dishes.  Although I haven’t had that many MRIs, I do know that the big metal tube you enter for an extended period (that also makes scary thumping noises), can be very claustrophobic, so I always give myself a creative assignment to help me relocate myself to somewhere else.  It wasn’t quiet, but it certainly felt secluded!

A recipe that came from my last MRI is a salad I call “Forever French.”  After being told that customers were requesting more vegetable salads, I decided I would build something around haricots verts – a slender French variety of green beans, and an ingredient we hadn’t used for a while.  My next step was to decide what else to mix with the haricots verts, as well as the kind of dressing that would tie everything together.  After more “steeping” (with all the thumping noises going on in my “large tube”) I decided on paper-thin slices of red onion marinated in extra virgin olive oil (to soften both their texture and their “bite”) and diced dried figs, to add just a touch of sweetness.  As for the dressing, I decided on a blue cheese vinaigrette.  I have used dried figs and blue cheese in a spinach salad we make in the cafe and the sweetness of the figs goes very well with the salty piquant taste of the blue cheese.  Voila – a new vegetable salad – invented in a tube!

 

Forever French

 

4 pounds haricot verts – cooked al dente, cut in half
2 ½ cups red onions, thinly sliced and marinated in olive oil until soft
2 cups dried figs thinly sliced
1 cup olive oil
¾ cup blue cheese
½ tablespoon salt & pepper

Whisk the oil, cheese and salt and pepper together.  Mix with the green beans, figs and onions

 

Although I prefer my “steeping” process accompanied by a glass or two of wine rather than a medical procedure, the results can be just as successful.  Not every dish, however, is a winner.  Before the recipes find their way to one of our menus, they all need extensive testing.  Sometimes I will just hand them off to the chef to build and refine, but other times I will collaborate with them directly.  We start with a basic list of ingredients and as we mix them together and determine proportions of one to another, we might also add other ingredients and eliminate some as we go.  Then we taste the final product with the kitchen and market staff and ask for their input.  By this point we usually have made something that is met with staff approval to one degree or another, but the ultimate test is how the salad is received by the customers.  If it sits in the case without much interest, we will rethink the recipe, change the presentation, or in some cases, move on to other ideas.  Another critical metric is how it looks in the case after serval hours.  Sad looking salads alas, do not get re-made and go to what I call “recipe heaven”.  I have stacks and stacks in my files – some incredibly delicious but that didn’t meet the standards to be sold in a food shop which are very different standards from something to be eaten at home immediately.

 

 

The whole process of invention though testing is without a doubt the most fun and rewarding part of my job.  Food simply makes me happy.  At its most base form, food provides us all with energy and the ability to maintain life, but to me it is also an adventure.  I began my business with this adventurous spirit in mind and I am thankful to have found a way to sustain that energy four decades later.  Food will always be something I can rely on to provide challenge and reward in my life, and I have been lucky to be able to share my creations with so many people over the years.

This blog focused on the many ways I search for and find the recipes I use in my restaurant and food market.

My next post will focus more specifically on collaborations with the many chefs I have worked with over the years.  Their influence and input on both the menus of all my restaurants as well as my personal relationship with food is immense, and I look forward to sharing that journey.

Until then, Buon Appetito!

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “Christmas Changes”

There is something comforting about following long-established traditions which for me bring a sense of continuity to an otherwise hectic world. Christmas rituals especially seem to capture a certain kind of magic that reminds us of the strength and importance of family bonds.  My own family’s holiday traditions continued to remain relatively unchanged for years – even after returning to the U.S. from three years living in the U.K.

But as change enters our lives, traditions can also morph to accommodate it.  Sometimes it’s a move, sometimes a job change, a new family member, a death, a divorce. Each holiday begins to have a different look and feel to it.  Some changes are gradual like children growing from dependent babies to independent young adults.  As my own children entered their teenage years, Robby (now Rob) and Candace no longer greeted us at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning wide-eyed and excited to see what Santa Claus had brought them.  Instead, it was me dragging them out of bed – both blurry-eyed, and tired from staying up too late on Christmas Eve. Amidst their yawns and protests claiming it was “way too early”, Christmas morning and all that it promised still meant a lot to them.

 

 

It did make me a little sad giving up some of the sweet holiday rituals associated with childhood – like setting out a plate of cookies for Santa and some carrots for his reindeer.  But the rhythm of our holiday festivities was not drastically altered by their absence.  Other rituals took their place. And there would be a time when all those traditions would be passed along to a new generation and I, once again, would be able to experience those sweet innocent rituals with my grandchildren.

Our social calendar was also busy – filled to the brim with both adult activities and holiday events for our teenage children.  Christmas is an ideal time to entertain.  Cocktail parties, Christmas cookie-making sessions, teas, elegant dinners or even caroling parties were all enhanced by the warm decor of the season: stylish wreaths, handsome garland swags and beautifully trimmed Christmas trees put everyone into a festive and celebratory mood.  Though the ornament-making party I held when my children were little was a thing of the past, I replaced it by a variety of holiday parties; my favorite being a Christmas Tea Party.  On these occasions I would have friends, neighbors and some of my managers over to our house where I would lay out everything from platters of little tea sandwiches, beautiful pastries, mini fruit tartlets and bowls of nuts and candies on a lace clad buffet table surrounded by jolly Santa’s.  These afternoon events always made for a festive holiday get together without the pressure of serving a formal dinner.  The Santa collection that decorated our house this time of year was a tribute to my father who to me, was the quintessential Santa Claus.  It added charm and warmth to my home during the Christmas season and reminded me of my Dad.  Once it became known that I had a soft spot for Santas, the collection grew quickly.  It seemed like almost every family member and friend I had gave me their own personal “Santa gift” at one time or another: ornaments, stuffed Santa dolls, Santa’s in sleighs, in boats, on sleds or bikes, with Mrs. Santa Claus or with his reindeer.  Made out of wood, metal, fabric, glass, wire, even shells, during the season they were on display in every room throughout my house.  I found it difficult to pass by a store window that featured Santa’s without going in and purchasing one.  Eventually I had so many Santa’s I could have opened my own Christmas store!

Another memorable holiday affair I hosted was a Sunday Christmas brunch.  It was a large gathering with tables set up all over our house – dining room, living room and porch – each table festively decorated with centerpieces of pinecones, greens, and bright red flowers.  I even hired a few tuxedoed waiters to welcome guests as they arrived with a glass of sparkling Italian Prosecco.

My menu had an Italian focus – frittatas, Italian sausage, blood orange and fennel salad and lots of different breads – slices of panettone, focaccias, and little wedges of potato-rosemary pizzas.  The most fun and inspired part of the brunch came with the entertainment.  A group of actors arrived mid-brunch all decked out in Shakespearean costumes and serenaded us with a selection of Christmas carols and dramatic readings from both Dickens and Shakespeare.  It was quite an affair.

Shakespearean carolers

Over the years, we also welcomed many out-of-town guests for the holidays.  In addition to our parents – who came to stay for several days each year – we often entertained other family and friends requiring me to add “hotel duties” to my list of responsibilities.  To accommodate our guests, we always had extra leaves standing by to extend the dining room table.  And though the people filling those chairs changed from year to year, they inevitably made those Christmases just a little more special.  One Christmas it was my sister Joan with her two boys, Gardner and Doug who came from Wichita, Kansas seeking the warmth of family to lessen the emotional stress of her impending divorce.  Another year it was my brother-in-law Tom, his wife Monica and their two children who decided to “come west” from their home in Boston to celebrate with us in Glencoe.  Soon after, my younger sister Karen and her husband Jeff joined us for an early holiday dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding before they returned to their home in Connecticut.

Tom Barocci with my son Rob and Candace in background

Jeff and Karen with me and Candace lurking behind them

Doug May, Thelma and Robby

Changes in our guest list or changes in the number of people at our table didn’t alter our holiday schedule much.  I just bought extra groceries and washed sheets and towels more frequently.  However, one change that did alter the flow of my holiday schedule was opening an Italian wine and food market a year after my return from England.  Retail Christmas is an extremely busy time of year so in order that my own personal Christmas activities could continue as they had in years past, I needed to be hyper-organized.  I didn’t want to give up my family Christmas, my entertaining, my children’s activities – anything – so planning my time wisely became very important.

I was especially excited when my Italian partner, Paolo Volpara, his wife, his son, and his mother  (Wanda Bottino – my other partner and mentor in authentic Italian cooking), came the year after we opened Convito to experience a traditional American Christmas. I had learned so much about traditions and regional cooking from Paolo and Wanda that I was happy to have the opportunity to introduce them to some American cooking and our American holiday traditions. In addition to just relaxing around my home, we also visited downtown Chicago – a drive down beautifully lit Michigan Avenue checking out the annual wreathing of the lions in front of the Art Institute and making a stop to view Marshall Field’s amazing Christmas-themed windows ending with lunch in Field’s Walnut Room sitting under its famous towering Christmas Tree.

Paolo receiving a gift of a roll of brown paper on Christmas morning

Wanda on Christmas morning (while I micro-nap)

But food was what they were all most interested in.  Roast turkey remained the star of my Christmas dinner accompanied by stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  The relishes and side dishes I chose to accompany the turkey varied from year to year.  A bonus of now being the proprietor of a food market (and eventually a cafe) meant that I was constantly experimenting with new recipes.  The year that Paolo and his family came for Christmas I introduced a succulent gratin of layered butternut squash, leeks, tomato, and Gruyere onto our Christmas Day menu.  As I was making the dish, Wanda (who found it impossible to stay out of the kitchen – even though I kept telling her to relax), suggested adding Parmesan as an “Italian finishing touch” ingredient sprinkled on top of the dish.  Everyone loved it.   We currently make it in our market and serve it in squares like lasagna.  It also makes for a delicious vegetarian option for the holidays – or actually anytime of the year squash is in season.

© rob warner photography 2021

Butternut Squash Gratin
(serves 6-8 as a side dish)

Ingredients
3 pounds butternut squash
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon finely found pepper
3 medium leeks, cut into thin slices
1 small onion, chopped
3 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded & chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

 

Heat oven to 425 degrees

Peel squash cut into ½ inch rounds, place in a single layer on a baking sheet greased with oil and bake in a 400-degree oven for approximately 15 minutes

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet and add the leeks and onions with ¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.  Sauté over medium heat until soft and beginning to caramelize.  Set aside

Heat remaining oil in the same skillet used to sauté the leeks.  Add tomatoes, thyme and remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until soft and thickened.

In a medium-sized oiled baking or gratin dish, lay down ½ of the squash slices.  Spread one half of the leeks-onion mixture on top of squash, then ½ of the tomato mixture.  Sprinkle ½ of the grated Gruyere on top.  Repeat with another layer of each ending with the tomato mixture then the Gruyere.  Sprinkle the top with the Parmesan Cheese.

Bake uncovered in the oven for approximately 30 minutes until cheese is lightly browned.

 

Our most frequent Christmas guests were Mr. and Mrs. Erickson, close friends of my parents for as long as I can remember. The four of them shared a back fence, in a quiet section of Janesville, Wisconsin.  Hopping over the fence at a moment’s notice had provided them with a comfortable and easy access to one another’s lives. As my parent’s health began to decline, the Erickson’s became their caretakers – a role they performed with great kindness and respect. They were ten years younger than my parents, so they were spry enough to still do much of what had become increasingly difficult for both my mom and dad.   Ruth and Gene (as I began to call them) happily drove the two hours plus to our home to join our holiday celebrations – a happy bonus for all of us.

Mom, Dad, the Ericksons with Bob and I and Rob (home from college)

My Mom Thelma with Candace & Rob and Ruth & Gene Erickson

Whenever Gene Erickson was our guest, he took charge of the turkey, a task he thoroughly enjoyed and one I was happy to relinquish.  Roasting a turkey was never high on my list of favorite chef duties. Often it emerged from the oven either overcooked or undercooked. Gene loved the whole process.  Each year as he thoroughly and lovingly rinsed and patted dry every cavity of the bird, he would also give a detailed account of the numerous health hazards of raw poultry. Because of his attention to detail, I was always certain that no one had a cleaner or more sanitary turkey than the one Gene Erickson prepared.  And it always turned out perfect – the right temperature and doneness.

During their visits we always made time for a dinner or lunch at Convito.  Gene, like my father, loved food.  Gene also loved wine and thoroughly enjoyed perusing our shelves, reading the wine descriptions and later pontificating about many of the details he had learned about regional Italian wine.  Both were educators and loved the whole learning process.  Gene had been the high school music teacher in charge of the orchestra in Janesville when my father was principal of the junior high.  They had much in common.

Although proud, I think my father was a little surprised at my accomplishments. How did his daughter who had graduated with a history major from the University of Wisconsin, then taught Language Arts and Social Studies for four years end up in the restaurant business?  Actually, he was no more surprised than I was.  In his generation, that was simply not a preferred career for a woman.  The most popular career choice for a woman was housewife and mother – maybe nurse, secretary, or teacher.  However, with three daughters – me in this business, my younger sister an accomplished artist with a string of awards and my older sister with a very successful political career serving 8 years on the Wichita City council and even running for mayor, he must have somehow inspired us to move beyond the home – to expand the sacred duties of wife and mother and enter another world.  He never, however, pushed us toward careers.  Nor had he ever told us no.  Maybe it was just his example of being who he was – an intelligent, informed, fair, supportive man who respected everyone and was in turn, respected by everyone who knew him.  He, to me, was a shining example of a success as a human being.

Mom & dad at the opening of Convito

The Ericksons continued to be a part of our holidays even after my father died.  We, of course, always missed my father terribly.  Feelings of loss and grief can be particularly strong around the holidays.  The first Christmas after his passing was especially sad.  There was never any question, however, that we should continue to celebrate in the same manner we had celebrated every year.  He would have wanted it that way.  He had always been my inspiration during the holiday season, and I still felt his spirit – his total and unabashed love of Christmas and all it represented – especially the food.  His spirit helped to carry us through the season, as it would for me every Christmas for years to come.

Opening another Convito in Chicago added to my already busy schedule.  It also exposed the business to a much bigger clientele base and gave Convito incredible new press coverage.  Sometimes the press asked for new recipes.  Restaurants and Institutions, an insider restaurant publication, asked me for a Christmas recipe to be a holiday feature in their magazine. I chose a salad.  I wanted it to be both delicious and “Christmas beautiful” at the same time.  My artist sister, Karen was living with her husband in Chicago at that time so I talked with her about my ideas for developing a salad that would also look great in a magazine.  The recipe we came up with appeared in the November 1986 issue.  Of course, I thought it needed an Italian name since it was coming from Convito.  However, it is truly more American than anything else.  One of Karen’s contributions was to add several slices of carambola also known as star fruit – the final Christmas touch.  I continue to resurrect it each year usually as a special in the cafe during the holiday season.

 

© rob warner photography 2021

“The Christmas salad was created by Chicago’s Convito Italiano proprietor Nancy Barocci and consultant Karen Butler to give Convito customers a taste of the holidays, Italian style.”

Insalata di Natale
(6 servings)

•Mixed greens, (Bib, Boston, leaf, romaine lettuces) washed & dried – as needed
•Watercress or arugula – as needed
•Cranberry Vinaigrette – recipe follows
•Pomegranate seeds from 1 pomegranate
•Star Fruit, sliced

Tear greens into bite-size pieces, removing coarser stems from watercress.  Place in large bowl, toss with Cranberry vinaigrette.  Divide among 6 chilled salad plates.  Sprinkle pomegranate seeds on each and garnish with 3 star-fruit slices.

 

Cranberry Vinaigrette
(approximately 2/3 cup)

•1/3 cup olive oil
•2 tablespoons Cranberry-apple concentrate
•2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
•2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
•Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Method:  Mix ingredients together

*this salad continues to be a feature on our Christmas holiday restaurant specials.  We sometimes add a slice of warmed brie.

 

My Italian market and restaurant continued to thrive, but my marriage on the other hand, would not. I knew that divorce would be a highly stressful, life-changing event, but when my then-husband and I separated one of the first things I worried about was how I would celebrate the holiday season.  Knowing that my way of celebrating would have to change (who would be with me and where ?!) I was terrified of losing the things that had grounded me my entire life.  But I reminded myself that change had always been my friend.  My belief in keeping certain traditions the same while always incorporating new ideas, experiences and perspectives allowed me to convince myself that my world would actually not fall apart.  It would simply look different.  Christmas magic, I promised myself, could be found in many different ways, in many different places.  And I was determined to find it!

During my first year of being separated (it took forever to get a divorce) I decided that I would embrace this next period in my life.   I began with changing my Christmas dinner menu.  Goose instead of turkey seemed like a good place to begin. Its tasty dark meat was delicious and produced a wonderful rich gravy that I served over crispy golden potatoes roasted in the goose fat.  I also made a casserole of braised red cabbage – fabulous with goose.  I felt very “Dickensian” since roast goose was the Christmas meal served by the poor Cratchit family in Dicken’s novel, A Christmas Carol.

Candace and Rob Warner pre-goose Christmas dinner

I never, however, cooked goose again!  Although delicious, I couldn’t believe the amount of fat it produced.  My kitchen was filled with smoke and the amount of actual meat on the goose was miniscule.  I returned to cooking turkey the next Christmas, but the process of making something different in this transitional year was a transformative moment to me.  Eventually my Christmas meals evolved away from the traditional turkey menu to completely different cuisines.  But along the way, we experimented with different ways to cook the turkey.   For two years we had the butcher spatchcock it.  Spatchcocking is basically splitting the bird to increase its surface area allowing it to cook more evenly, and in less time.  This process is also known as butterflying. The disadvantage is that you can no longer dramatically enter the room with the beautiful big roasted turkey on a platter and place it in front of the man (or woman) of the house to carve.  Since we never did that anyway (we always did our carving in the kitchen before bringing a platter full of sliced turkey to the table), spatchcocking seemed a great solution for us.  It also solved the problem of all the other dishes getting cold while the carver slowly and dramatically sliced the turkey.

Spatchcocked Turkey (modest version)

The next year was even more transformative.  Christmas in Connecticut with my sister Karen and brother-in-law Jeff accompanied by my two grown children was my very first one away from my home.  Connecticut could not have been a better “transition Christmas”.  Falling snow, quaint holiday Inns, sleigh rides and good old Christmas warmth were something I already associated with Connecticut through my love of the 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut.  And my sister’s Christmas traditions were as warm and wonderful as my own.  After all we grew up in the same household.

 

Karen & I

 

We had a wonderful time, so wonderful that we repeated it the following year with the whole extended Brussat family; the three sisters and their families together for the first time in a very long time.  Amazingly, all of our grown children (we each had two) brought either their spouses or fiancés or girlfriends/boyfriends.   The only grandchild at that time was Tessa, Elizabeth’s daughter, Karen and Jeff’s grandchild.  Everyone was in love with Tessa so there was much competition for her attention.  We began our festivities on Christmas Eve at my sister Karen’s art studio with not only a delicious meal but all kinds of artistic touches including Christmassy place mats Karen made for each of us containing lovely family photos of the cousins in their growing up years.

 

Karen’s placemat

Three Brussat Sisters angry about Christmas

The Cousins, the matriarchs and Jerry

Beginning to feel confident that having a wonderful Christmas would come for me in ways that I had not yet envisioned, I ventured further afield for the next one.  My two kids and I traveled to Seattle to spend it with my niece Elizabeth, her partner Chris and daughter Tessa.  Karen and Jeff joined us.  After a brief stay in Seattle – enjoying a little Christmas shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, one of my favorite outdoor markets in all of America – we boarded festively decorated boats to view the spectacular sights along the shoreline of Seattle.  Houseboats covered in twinkling Christmas light, piers strung with garland and ribbons and even bonfires and fireworks on the beach made for an unexpectedly magical experience.

 

Elizabeth, Chris and I in Seattle

 

The next day we took a ferry to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia which sits on a craggy end of Vancouver Island. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there.  As we walked through the beautifully lit old town, strolled through the dazzling Inner Harbor, and shopped along its cobblestone streets, it became clear that we had selected the perfect city for a magical Christmas.  Especially memorable was afternoon tea at the storied Empress Hotel, a tradition that began when the hotel opened in 1908.

Jeff’s tree in Victoria

Chris & Karen in kitchen

Chris, Rob, Karen, Nancy, Candace and Tessa in Seattle

Christmas Eve in Victoria was celebrated in our hotel with a charcuterie and antipasti dinner followed by one of Karen’s famous art projects.  We all made paper angel Christmas tree ornaments that we then hung on the balsam fir tree that Jeff bought and installed in our shared living space.  Later we played my favorite game, Balderdash, which features silly definitions about people, words, and a whole variety of subjects. It catapulted us all into contagious fits of laughter that at times seemed like they would never end.  We not only laughed at the silly definitions but also at Jeff, whose booming almost uncontrollable laugh – actually making him double over with tears running down his face – is an image that to this day gives me a warm feeling remembering certainly the funniest Christmas Eve I have ever experienced.

Christmas dinner at the Swans hotel

The next many Christmases I spent at home.   But home kept changing.  I moved from Glencoe into the city of Chicago – first to a townhouse in Old Town and then to a condo on Lake Shore Drive.  I lived in the city for about 12 years before once again moving back up north to Northfield, a suburb closer to Convito.  Location changes were not the only things that brought variety to my Christmas.  The cast of characters changed also – first a new son-in-law, then a new daughter-in-law and then four blessed grandchildren bringing with them once again, the true innocence and magic of holidays.  The rituals once so important to my children when they were small were happily resurrected.

Me with Kingston, Isis, Neko and Kianna

Of course, with family marriages comes sharing the holidays with the spouse’s family.  For the most part I was lucky to have my children and their families on Christmas Day since their spouse’s families celebrated on Christmas Eve.  Eventually as my son’s family spent Christmas Day in Brooklyn, our family’s Christmas Day changed to an entirely different one – usually the day after Christmas.  But it really made no difference at all.  As the years went by, I began to realize that the key to celebrating a Merry Christmas was simply celebrating with family no matter when or where.

Convito continued to take up much of my holiday time and I was constantly experimenting with new holiday dishes for our market.  Each season my goal was to come up with another recipe to add to our holiday selection.  One dish I invented, which contained all the warm and cozy ingredients perfect for a whole variety of holiday-type main dishes from turkey to duck to pork, was a dish we called “My Fair Farro”.   It is also an easy dish to make ahead and just warm when ready to eat – always an important factor for holiday fare when so many dishes are last minute.  Its main ingredient was farro, an ancient grain that has a nutty earthiness and a very satisfying chew.  It originated in the Fertile Crescent where it had actually been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings.  So not only is farro delicious but it comes with an interesting history – always good for family conversation around the table.

 

My Fair Farro

¼ cup olive oil
2 cups fennel chopped
2 cups onion chopped
5 cloves garlic
salt & pepper
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound sweet potatoes cut into ½ inch pieces
½ cup cider vinegar
2 granny smith apples cut into ½ inch pieces
1 cup sun-dried cherries
½ cup parsley

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan.  Add the fennel, onion, garlic and salt.  Cook over medium heat until fennel soft.  Add stock and farro, bring to a boil – simmer until tender about 20 to 25 minutes.

Roast sweet potatoes on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt and pepper, cider vinegar for about 15 minutes. Add apples and roast longer until sweet potatoes and apples are soft.  Toss farro with cherries, parsley, sweet potatoes and apples.

At one time in the nineties, I had four operating restaurants: Convito had three locations, as well as my French Bistro Betise.  For the fourteen years Betise was open, our Christmas Eve Candlelight Dinner was the most popular night of the season which increased every year.  It featured our regular menu plus a whole array of Christmas specials like Venison in a Pomegranate Sauce, Tortellini in Brodo (cheese stuffed pasta in a rich chicken broth) and our Christmas Salad (the one my sister and I had designed with star fruit and a cranberry vinaigrette).  I spent several Christmas Eves in the festive atmosphere of our warm candlelit dining room with my dear friends Janet and Paul Alms.  Janet and I would dress to the nines in our finest holiday velvet and pearls and Paul would always arrive looking suave and handsome in his tailored tuxedo.  When we eventually combined Betise and Convito, we continued our Candlelight Dinner which to this day is one of our busiest nights of the year.

Janet & Paul

Beautifully wrapped, multi-colored panettones (a sweet bread originally from Milan, speckled with raisins and candied citrus) always added color to the Christmas decor of Convito. When we first began selling panettone, it was only the classic version that was available for import and only from a few select producers.  As they grew in popularity in the U.S., panettones began to come in a multitude of flavors, from a multitude of producers– cappuccino, apple, amareno cherry, pistachio and chocolate in a number of different combinations – orange, pear, fig – and many many more.  Today our selection is incredible – in my opinion, the best and most in-depth I have ever seen.

Pannetones

Even the type of cuisine I served on “our Christmas Day changed. Since Rob’s family had their turkey day on Christmas in Brooklyn and my daughter had hers with her in-laws in Chicago on Christmas Eve, I began experimenting with different themes and different cuisines. They didn’t need a second turkey dinner.  One year I cooked all French fare in anticipation of our impending trip to France the following summer. Italian and American cuisine were often my choice, and I even cooked a Middle Eastern meal one year

No matter what cuisine I am serving, there are certain traditions that have remained constant.  We begin our celebration in mid- afternoon with a glass of wine or Bloody Marys and soda for the kids, then leisurely open our presents around a coffee table filled with appetizers that fit with the dinner’s theme.  Of course, there’s a fashion show after the present opening ceremony to see what clothing gifts fit and which ones don’t.  My daughter-in-law, Angie and Candace usually lead the procession followed by the girls Neko, Kianna and Isis. We even make the guys – son Rob and son-in-law “the other Rob” and grandson Kingston follow their lead.  We always marvel at the choices that seem perfect “fits” but as with clothes that you have never tried on before, there are always “misses” some of which can be quite laughable.  Like “oops – it’s too big, too small or simply what was I thinking?”

While everyone is cleaning up the mess and enjoying one another’s company, I slip into the kitchen to get our meal ready – joined a little later by the adult children to either finish setting the table, light the candles, pour the water & wine, or just help me with the final cooking.  My son Rob usually acts as my sous chef sometimes assisted by “the other Rob” who is also a great cook.

Rob, Candace and Angie in kitchen

The centerpiece of my holiday season remains cooking.  It has been a constant outlet for my creativity over the years.  And I frequently discover a dish or two that I can add to my Convito repertoire. One of the dishes from the Middle Eastern meal I served is a dish we now sell in our market. Because its colors are so autumn-like and so festive, we have named in Festi-Fall.  It is a perfect holiday dish served as a relish – an exotic alternative to cranberry sauce.

 

Festi-Fall

Salad
8 cups butternut squash diced into ½ inch cubes then roasted (should be al dente)
3 cups pomegranate seeds
2 cups peanuts
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
½ cup minced parsley

Dressing
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
½ teaspoon chili pepper flakes
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt and pepper combo

 

However, of late, the look of my holiday table has become another creative outlet. Ever since one of my grandchildren (Neko) made the comment “I wonder what Grammy’s table will look like this year”, I have been inspired to live up to those expectations and come up with something different each year.  My themes have varied from forest animals, angels, mini fir trees amidst mini cottages (a collection from my time in England) and of course, my ever-present Santas.

 

When I look back at how much I worried about the way in which I would celebrate the holiday season after my husband and I separated, I have to smile.  Up until then my holiday traditions had been fairly predictable.   Though altered by small things, they pretty much followed a pattern.  But having successfully navigated my first holiday as a single woman, today I look back and marvel at all the wonderful Christmas adventures I have experienced.  Change might initially be intimidating and scary, but in the end, it almost always proves to be exciting and invigorating.

Embracing new traditions and 90s fashion with my kids

However, there was always – and continues to be – one unchanged factor. No matter where I celebrated, no matter who was added to the cast of characters, no matter when the actual day of our celebration occurred, my son Rob and my daughter Candace were always a part of that celebration.   And then when Candace’s husband Rob and Rob’s wife Angie joined the family it only added to the magic of the season, which was then multiplied exponentially with the addition of my four grandchildren – Kingston and Kianna to Candace’s family and Neko and Isis to Rob’s.

 

And though I dearly love all the trimmings of the holiday season – the smell of freshly baked cookies, the nostalgic Christmas music, the twinkling lights – it is the time spent with family that makes this such an intimate and special end to the year.  It is a time for honoring tradition, creating memories, and celebrating each other that continues to make it my very favorite time of year!

 

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “Christmas Traditions”

Each November, moments after the Thanksgiving leftovers are stuffed into the refrigerator and the autumnal-themed decorations are taken down, I begin to feel the magic of the Christmas season.  The woodsy fragrance of evergreens, the crisp, cold air of December and the red and green brushstrokes of the coming holiday season fill me with a heightened sense of excitement.  This has always been a cozy time of year for me.  A time where twinkling lights, flickering candles and the glow of burning embers never fail to conjure up warm memories of all the past holiday traditions that have brought me a sense of comfort and belonging ever since I was a little girl.

Brussat sisters at Christmas in Janesville (L-R; Nancy, Joan, Karen)

Before I was married, I spent every Christmas with my mom, dad and two sisters in my hometown of Janesville, a small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  Once married, my husband and I took turns celebrating the holidays with our families – each year spending Christmas Eve with one family, then Christmas Day with the other – and to make everyone happy we would reverse the schedules the following year.  Since our hometowns were only a couple hours apart, the drive on Christmas morning was never a burden and probably added to the sense of anticipation for our young children.

Once our son Robby was four and daughter Candace was one, we decided it was finally time to have Christmas in our own home and to establish our own holiday traditions.  Though I wanted to keep much of what made my childhood Christmas’ special, I also wanted to create new rituals – ones I hoped would be meaningful enough to pass along to my children.  After weeks of pondering, I came up with lots of ideas for the whole holiday season, specifically detailing every moment on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Robby and Candace, 1971

The centerpiece of my holiday season has always been cooking.  To me food is not just something to be enjoyed and savored, but it is an outlet for my own creativity and a way to connect people.  It is my identity and my family history.  As the holidays approach – even before Christmas day arrives – I can smell the fragrance of my mom’s turkey roasting in the oven.  I can picture my father carving it, carefully placing the legs, thighs and tender slices of breast meat on the large gleaming white platter reserved exclusively for holiday dinners.  I see my mother – apron tied neatly at her back – stirring onions and celery in melted butter.  She is finishing what is still to this day my favorite holiday side dish: traditional bread stuffing (or dressing as we called it since we never used it to stuff the turkey).  She pulls it from the oven – browned and crispy, smelling of earthy, herbaceous sage – and I can hardly wait to enjoy what to me represents the very essence of holiday comfort food.  Smothered in rich brown gravy alongside a mound of buttery mashed potatoes, I could have been happy eating just those two side dishes as my entire Christmas dinner.

Nancy and Karen

Year after year I revisit these same kitchen scenes, though now the memories of my mother and father are intertwined with other family members and friends who have since contributed to my reel of heartening and singular Christmas memories.  As the years pass, I have come to realize just how much these meals connect us.  And though the food itself never fails to bring joy, it is those moments before and after the eating – the endless preparation, the over-crowded kitchen, the digging out of the “special” china, the epic dish-washing sessions – that live as vividly as anything in my mind.  They have become a part of our family lore.

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Beginning right after Thanksgiving, I would spend hour after hour thinking about these holiday meals: combining ingredients, imagining tastes and visualizing the final dish plated on one of the eclectic china and pottery pieces from my collection.  Planning is in my DNA, and I enjoy it almost as much as I do the execution.  It allows me to pull all sorts of disparate details together and arrange them into a highly personal design.  And with such a grand and important holiday like Christmas, my ideas were limitless.  Of course, my menu would always include dishes that everyone asks for again and again – classics like the bread stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy – but I always wanted to add something new to the holiday menu that was reflective of my own style and creative evolution.

To this day, memories of that first Christmas when I was “in charge” make me dizzy.  From Christmas Eve to midnight on Christmas Day there was not a minute where we were not engaged in cooking, eating, munching or some other festive activity revolving around food.

It all began Christmas Eve with a soup and salad meal I called my “Early Supper”.  I served potato soup using a recipe from a friend who claimed it was the same one Louis Szathmary served at his famous restaurant The Bakery, one of Chicago’s most popular restaurants from 1963 to 1989.  Whatever its origin, it was delicious.  A baby spinach salad with a lovely warm bacon dressing and slices of crusty country bread accompanied.  Very cozy food.  Very satisfying.   A nice beginning to the evening I thought.  Filling enough – but not too heavy.  Time was of the essence, however, since this meal was only the beginning of a long night full of other activities.

© rob warner photography 2021

Potato Soup
8 servings

Ingredients
¼ cup olive oil
6 cups peeled, cubed (1 inch) potatoes
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 quart (4 cups) chicken stock
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 bay leaf
3 ½ cups heavy crem
¼ cups flour

Garnish
sour cream
chopped chives

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and saute for 1 minute.  Add the potatoes and parsley and saute another 2 minutes, stirring to make sure the potatoes are well coated with the oil.  Turn the heat to low, cover and continue sauteeing for 10 minutes.  Add the chicken stock, salt, pepper and bay leaf.  Bring to a boil.  Whisk the flour into the cream until smooth.  Slowly add the cream mixture into the soup.  Cook for 15 to 20 minutes on low heat at a steady simmer.  Remove the bay leaf.

Garnish the soup with a dab of sour cream and sprinkle with chopped chives.

Right after supper we embarked on an excursion to Marshall Field’s historic State Street flagship department store in downtown Chicago where we planned to stroll past their legendary Christmas window displays.  These displays had a reputation for being magical.  Each year they created a new storyline, everything from themes like ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to “Uncle Mistletoe” and “Winter Fairyland”.  Each window was intricately decorated with amazing lights and a whole array of figures and dioramas, all with incredible moving parts.

On this particular year, Chicago was enduring an extremely cold winter of record breaking below-zero temperatures.   Bundling up in warm winter coats, woolen scarves and thick mittens, the three grandparents squeezed into the back seat of our car with Robby sitting on Grandma Mary’s lap. I sat in the front with toddler Candace and Bob was in the driver’s seat.  Off we went anticipating a little Christmas wonderment on the most wonderful of nights – Christmas Eve.

Upon pulling up to the massive building, we were thrilled to see the normal crowds surrounding each of the many windows were nowhere to be seen.  What luck!  However, we quickly realized the joke was on us.  I cannot recall that excursion without laughing out loud, even to this day.  We had known it was going to be quite chilly for a leisurely stroll from window to window, so we planned to have Bob pull up to the curb in front of the first window in the storyline and then idle for us around the block where the series ended.  My father – eager to experience the magic – bounded from the car with everyone quickly following.  No sooner had my father reached the first window (I’m not sure he even looked at the display), than he spun on his heels like a man 20 years younger and sprinted back to the warmth of the car.  Confused (but relieved), the rest of us quickly followed.  If anyone had been around, I’m sure we were a comic sight – like watching Charlie Chaplin as the “Tramp” scoot across the screen followed by a cast of equally fast-moving characters.  It was simply too cold to enjoy anything outside – even something as festive as those window displays.   Once we were all safely back in the car, Bob attempted to salvage our adventure by slowly creeping past the other windows, but it was difficult to see anything so far away through steamy windows inside our packed car.  We were all disappointed, but it didn’t take long for the absurdity of the situation to send us all into fits of laughter all the way back to the warmth of our home in Evanston, just north of the city.

My Dad and Mom with Robby

As everyone warmed themselves in front of the fireplace, I brought out dessert.  Hot chocolate was the first thing everyone grabbed from the tray in an attempt to defrost themselves, but it didn’t take long for them to dive into the huge platter of Christmas treats that I had been baking for the past two weeks – recipes of my own, plus many from my mother and mother-in-law.  The cookie assortment included chewy chocolate drop cookies, spicy gingerbread men, raspberry thumbprints, peanut blossoms, Mary Barocci’s apricot and prune stuffed kolaches and my mother’s famous iced sugar cookies.  Slices of golden apricot bread and cranberry walnut bread added the finishing touches.

After filling our tummies and warming our souls, we began the ceremonial part of our Christmas Eve.  One of the many Barocci family traditions that I incorporated into my first Christmas was the reading of The Littlest Angel a book by Charles Tazewell.  That and the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas were read aloud just before the kids were tucked into bed.  Bob did the honors with the book and I the poem, the reading of which would eventually be taken over by our children.   We sang a few classic Christmas carols like Silent Night and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, then concluded the children’s part of our evening by setting out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, as well as some carrots for his reindeer.

At four, Robby was fully appreciative of Christmas and all its festive traditions.  Candace – barely a year old – was still too young to understand this was an annual occasion, but she certainly recognized that wearing a fancy new red-velvet dress, getting to help sprinkle iced Christmas cookies with red and green “candies” (the ones that didn’t go into her mouth) and waking up to a big tree ablaze with twinkling lights and surrounded by presents was certainly not an everyday occurrence.  And who she must have wondered, was this mysterious “Santa Claus” that everyone was talking about?

While visions of sugarplums (hopefully) danced in their heads, I went about the business of preparing the next item on my Christmas Eve agenda; something different, something new – my Midnight Antipasti Buffet!  I decided to add this not because of Bob’s Italian heritage (it had not been a part of his family’s traditions) nor as a prelude to the Italian market I would open years later, but simply because I thought it was a “cool” idea – one I came up with during my musings about my first Christmas and subsequent research.  And..well…and I did love Italian food!

with my Mom and Robby at my 1970s Christmas table

After considerable research, I learned that Italian custom dictates that a typical Christmas Eve meal should feature fish and seafood, but not meat – a Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining on the eve of a feast day.  But since I wasn’t following any Italian Catholic practice, I decided to serve a combination of both seafood and meat dishes.  I laid out a platter of salamis, zesty marinated shrimp, cheeses, prosciutto-wrapped melon, olives, roasted peppers, breadsticks, and crostini – a wonderful, glorious spread served on platters and in bowls of Italian pottery – the beginning of a collection that would expand exponentially over the years.  I had prepared many of these dishes the day before but there was still plenty of tweaking to do for each dish and then the final arrangement on the dining room table.  I was offered plenty of help but for this particular meal, I decided to go solo.  Since it was the first time I had prepared my Italian Antipasti Buffet, I wasn’t exactly sure how to delegate.  And anyway, after years of the three grandparents being in charge of this holiday, I wanted them to relax and enjoy their grandchildren and one another.  Besides there was plenty for them to help with on Christmas Day.

We did not, however, make it to midnight.  As I was arranging the antipasti spread, I would occasionally peek into the living room to see how everyone was doing.  The room had become quieter, conversation having slowed to a trickle, punctuated occasionally by one of my father’s enormous yawns that seemed to echo through the house warning me to ‘hurry up’ (he was as famous for those yawns as he was his enormous appetite!).  It was then I began to realize that keeping everyone up until midnight might not be such a good idea, so I pushed my schedule forward an hour to 11:00 pm.  “Settling down for a long winter’s nap” was more on everyone’s mind than another glass of wine and a heaping plate of antipasti.  However, everyone kindly indulged me.  They knew that I had worked hard on this late-night meal, so they pretended to enjoy every bite.  Maybe they actually did, but more than anything…they were ready for bed.  We ate quickly, (there was no lingering) cleaned up the kitchen and retired to our respective rooms exhausted.  Me especially!

I slipped out of bed early Christmas morning to begin preparing for the day.  Just thinking about what lay ahead made me tired and I was already beginning to wonder if I had gone too far.  Had I planned too many activities and too much food?  Would my fist Christmas be remembered as an over-indulgent bust?!  As Mary Barocci’s stollen (a traditional Christmas bread filled with nuts, spices and dried fruits) and my cranberry orange muffins warmed in the oven, I made a pot of coffee and set out a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.  This would tide us over during our present-opening ceremony.  I also set the table for the eggs Benedict brunch that would follow.

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So much of what I had planned for my first Christmas was to please my dad – my own personal Santa Claus – who loved food more than anyone else I knew.  He was an award-winning “plate-cleaner” and celebrated anyone who could join him in that feat.  The holidays I remember most vividly are those from my early childhood when my dad made certain that Christmas was as special as possible for his three daughters, even though the holiday season was often difficult for my mother who battled depression throughout her life.  As joyous as the holidays are, the stress involved undertaking all these meals, traditions and reunions is a lot to bear for anyone, and it was sometimes more than my Mom could take.  The times when this happened (and it wasn’t every Christmas), my father quietly and stoically assumed the responsibilities of both parents, trying to keep everything as normal as possible, always making sure that clothes were washed, dinner was on the table and activities went uninterrupted.  The holidays were already busy for him since he also worked a second job at the Post Office for extra Christmas money to subsidize his junior high principal salary and to buy his family presents – especially the items on his girl’s “Santa” lists.

He didn’t want us to see that he might be over-extending himself or that he was exhausted. No matter what else might be going on in his life, my father wanted to make certain that his girls could experience the magic of the Christmas season.  He simply knew that following established family traditions – the rituals we performed every year – would provide us with a sense of security and comfort.  And that it did.  Later when my own personal life was in turmoil, I would remember his example and try to follow it as best I could.  It was a wonderful lesson – one of many from my father – that I carry with me to this day.

Looking back, I can only image the enormous burden he carried.  But to his children he never appeared dispirited or put-upon.  He made certain that the traditions our family had established – baking and decorating our mother’s Christmas cookies, tree decorating and the celebratory opening of presents on Christmas morning – were always followed.  But for him, the highlight of the season came when it was time for Christmas dinner– a traditional holiday feast always complete with roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, brown gravy, green beans, sweet potatoes and – of course – cranberry sauce.  Those family meals are among my most happy memories, especially when both my parents were scurrying about the kitchen in the throes of trying to finish all the dishes at exactly the same time.  I would eventually appreciate this challenge when it was my turn.  And “my turn” was now upon me.

Mom & Dad

I wanted to please everyone on this, my first Christmas “in charge” but especially my dad.  He deserved it!  After our Christmas morning present-opening ceremony, I put on my leadership hat and began to orchestrate the day’s activities.  Brunch was next on the agenda after the chaos of present-opening had subsided.  I had Bob prepare the Bloody Marys and Mimosas as I busied myself with poaching eggs, making hollandaise sauce and browning hash-brown potatoes.  I can hardly remember actually eating the meal (one of my favorite breakfasts) or the events that followed since the moment I finished one thing, my head was already moving on to the next.  My brain was jam-packed with details and was constantly weighing which task I needed to perform next to keep the flow of the day on track.  That Christmas was pretty much a blur.  I do remember, however, a sense of relief when we finally sat down for the main meal – a four o’clock dinner – the finale of my first Christmas as host.

Candace and I with Mary and Thelma

But before the relief, comes the hard work!  It was not the preparation that was exhausting, since I had plenty of help that day –  my mom making the bread stuffing, Bob’s mother Mary mashing the potatoes and stirring her yummy gravy, my father tending to the turkey and Bob freshening everyone’s cocktails and pouring the wine. But we were in my house and it was my responsibility to make certain the experience for everyone was perfect: dishes had to come out at the same time; the turkey had to be done (but not too done), then carved and plated; the seating arrangement had to be just right; the wine chilled just so; the decorations impressive, but not ostentatious.  Then I had to decide what bowls and platters would be used for each item coming off the stove or out of the oven, and attend to the final – but critical – details: lighting the candles, selecting the Christmas music, making certain that the children’s hands were washed, and getting the family seated on time.  Though everyone contributed, the weight of the whole day – honoring past traditions while trying to establish new ones – was on my shoulders.  It was one thing to be assigned a task, and another completely to be in charge.

As we all took our places around the table, I couldn’t help but notice a less than enthusiastic response to the huge meal put before them. There was a lot of food being pushed around everyone’s plate – not a lot making it into mouths. Even my Dad fell into that category – my jolly father who could always finish everything put in front of him.  His enormous appetite, I observed, had been pushed to its limit by my marathon eating fest!   Then it struck me.  It had only been a short while since our hearty eggs benedict brunch (which itself is not exactly a light meal).  Was it only four hours ago?  Less?  Yikes!

As the dishes were cleared, washed, and put away, I began to review the past two days.  My next Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would have to be edited to some degree and the volume of food I put out would need to be scaled back a bit.  Clearly the midnight antipasti buffet would have to go.  Too late and too much! And the Eggs Benedict Brunch was just too close to the Christmas dinner (unless we planned to start Christmas morning at 4am!).  I decided that muffins, stollen, juice, and coffee would be enough for breakfast.  I certainly wanted my Christmas dinner – which took hours and hours of preparation and weeks of planning – to be anticipated and savored by hungry people!

It only took this one Christmas for me to recognize that I am somewhat extreme in my execution of Christmas.  But why not?!  It’s by far my favorite holiday of the year!   The amount of food and the frequency that I served it would have to change, but I knew I would continue to think of new ways to celebrate, new dishes to make, new activities to participate in – all with the goal of making people happy.  I couldn’t help myself!  I was my father’s daughter!  ’’Over the top” as my kids sometimes describe my holidays, was to me, part of the fun.  Maybe I would always be a little over the top (spoiler alert – I am!), but I still had room to reign things in just a little so that my family wouldn’t have to experience actual exhaustion and distress at keeping up with my exuberant celebration of Christmas!

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Robby and stocking

For the next six years we would spend Christmas in our Evanston home with mostly the same cast of characters and most of the same traditional fare (with at least one unexpected dish or preparation to keep everyone on their toes).   I did, however, frequently experiment with the dishes I served for Christmas Eve supper.  One year, instead of potato soup I made Cappelletti in Brodo (Little Hats in Broth is the English translation), plump meat filled pasta served in a rich chicken broth which I had been introduced to by my sister-in-law’s Italian American in-laws at their New Haven Connecticut home.  It was fun to borrow from other family’s food traditions.  I since learned that Cappelletti in Brodo is a highlight of the Christmas Day meal in Reggio Emilia, a town near Bologna.  Making the filling was easy.  Making the pasta – not so much.  I did not have the strength to roll out the pasta dough to as thin as it needed to be and at the time, did not have a pasta maker. The pasta maker was my husband.  It became a joint project and one that I’m not sure he always looked forward to!  As the years went by, my son took over for Bob and eventually he became my new cappelletti-making partner.   Although not an annual commitment, he still makes cappelletti from scratch for his family from time to time.

Christmas continued to evolve for me every year.  A few years after my first one I was inspired by a recipe I had found in a holiday food magazine.  It looked interesting to me both visually and taste-wise, and since the Christmas Eve tradition was gradually becoming one whose theme was “experimentation”, I went for it.

The recipe I found was a baked pasta dish – sumptuous rolls of flat noodles filled with spinach and cheese then baked in two sauces – tomato and bechamel. The result was a perfect symbol of the season; a warm, bubbly Christmastime mix of red, white and green.  It was such a hit with my family that once I opened Convito, we sold it both in the market and offered it as a holiday special in the café.

Nancy & Candace with Primizia

Rotolo Primizia
(makes 24 rolls)

Ingredients:
3 – 20-inch lasagna strips (blanched for 2 minutes in salted water)
3# frozen spinach (cooked, drained and squeezed dry)
3-cups ricotta
2 ½ cups grated Parmesan
5 eggs
¼ teaspoon minced garlic
1/8-teaspoon nutmeg
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper

Sauce
3 cups tomato sauce
3 cups béchamel sauce

Lay the carefully drained lasagna strips on a board.

Mix the spinach, ricotta and 2 cups of the parmesan together (reserve ½ cup for later).  Loosely whisk the eggs then add to the spinach mixture incorporating well.  Add garlic, nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Spread mixture on pasta strips about ¼ inch thick.  Roll each strip tightly.  Wrap rolls in cheesecloth tying ends.  Poach rolls in simmering water for about 20 minutes or until they float.  Remove cheesecloth from rolls soon after poaching. Allow rolls to cool.  Slice each roll into eight pieces. 

Place rolls overlapping in three rows in a 10 x 12 casserole dish.  Spread each row with half tomato sauce and half béchamel sauce.  Sprinkle the center of each row with the remaining grated parmesan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for approximately 25 minutes.  Serve immediately.

During those early Christmas years, I tried to think of more than just new food ideas, but also holiday themed activities that would please my kids – activities that would add to the magic of a child’s Christmas (though they usually did involve food in some way).  Making and decorating my mother’s Christmas cookies was always one of the highlights, which is a tradition that dated back to my earliest childhood memories.  It was ritual that all three Brussat girls carried with them into their adult life and continues a generation beyond with all their kids.  The husbands participated as well, occasionally leading the whole project.  My father especially delighted in the final decorations after the cookies had been iced.  He was a sprinkles guy and his favorites were the chocolate jimmies and red and green sugar crystals.

Candace and Kianna Warner making cookies

My children and my sisters’ children hold cookie baking sessions each year, all with their own “take” on my mother’s recipe.  My son-in-law, Rob Warner’s version is concocting weird icing colors like khaki green, murky brown (his intention was dark purple) or cloudy grey-blue.  It has become his signature.  We tease him about his weird color selection each year but must admit that his cookies are always quite interesting and all have a sense of humor.

My nephew Travis’s family – son of my artist sister Karen – creates an impressive batch as well.  Travis, his wife Mandy (both architects), their daughter Addie and Mandy’s mother Jonell all participate each year in this amazingly creative cookie making session.  They each bring their own particular family tradition of Christmas cookie baking to the table.  The results are unique, due in great part to the fact that they often establish a theme.  Mandy calls the theme “Anything Goes”. Basically, she says, “we are just trying to impress one another while having a great family time”.

Mandy & Travis Butler’s cookies

One year Addie decided to make a gingerbread man into a zombie which then established the tradition of making a zombie army each year as part of their collection.  Whatever their theme, they have certainly impressed me!  Their cookies are always works of art!

Grandma Brussat’s Christmas Sugar Cookies
Makes approximately 12 dozen cookies

Cookies
Ingredients
2/cups sifted cake flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2/cup butter
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 teaspoons milk

Directions
Sift flour once.  Measure in baking ups made for measuring dry ingredients.  See below. Add baking powder and salt.  Mix.  Then sift again.

Cream butter thoroughly.  Add sugar gradually, creaming with butter well.  Add eggs one at a time.  Mix.  Add vanilla.  Add milk and flour alternately.  Blend well.  Chill in refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Roll part of dough out to approximately 1/8 inch thick.  (Lightly flour board so dough doesn’t stick)  Cut with cookie cutters.  Place cookies on butter greased baking sheets and put in oven for approximately 9 minutes.  Watch them carefully so they don’t burn.  Keep rolling out dough until it is all used up.  Cool cookies on racks.  Ice with Butterfly Frosting and decorate.  Decorate before frosting hardens.

Butterfly Frosting
Ingredients
4 tablespoons butter
5 cups sifted powdered sugar
2 egg whites unbeaten
2 tablespoons cream
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt

Directions
Cream butter.  Add part of sugar.  Blend well.  Gradually add the rest of the sugar alternately with the egg whites and cream until right consistency is achieved.  (not too soft but able to spread easily).  Add vanilla and salt and blend well.  You may add more cream if frosting is too thick.

Another event we loved to repeat especially when my kids were small was an ornament making Christmas party. Robby and Candace’s school friends as well good family friends’ children were invited.  Besides making ornaments (some of which still hang on many of my friends Christmas trees to this day), a visit from Santa was usually orchestrated and always highly anticipated.  A good friend dressed in a Santa outfit with a pillow for his tummy stood in for the actual St Nick and invited each child to sit on his lap and recite their long list of Christmas wishes.  They were thrilled.  Each child left with their homemade ornaments, cookies, and a bag of Christmas candy and the certainty that Santa had gotten their message!

Robby telling Santa his wish list

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In 1976 we moved to England for 3 years.   Candace was six and Robby was ten.  We always came back to the U.S. the week of Christmas to New Year’s Eve to celebrate with our family and friends (and where I was pleased to step into a supporting role for a while) but since the Christmas season in England lasted the whole month of December, we were surrounded by festivities the other three weeks leading up to our trip back home.  England along with Germany, in my mind, are the most Christmasy of all countries but I was still surprised to learn that many of the traditions we practice in the U.S. today actually began in England during the Victorian era.

Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, had introduced me through his novel, A Christmas Carol” to many of England’s Christmas traditions long before I moved to the U.K.  To this day each Christmas season I look forward to either rereading that book or watching one of its many movie versions (my favorite being the 1984 George C. Scott adaptation).  It never ceases to warm my heart.  The Dicken’s novel, I learned, helped to popularize many of the elements we now associate with Christmas – families getting together, swapping presents and even saying “Merry Christmas”, a phase that had been around for three centuries but rarely used.

Those warm, Christmas-y Dickensian feelings are on display all over London during the Christmas season.  While we lived in England, I always made certain we brought Robby and Candace into London at least once during the season to see the beautiful display of Christmas lights.  Those on Regent Street (the first to install Christmas lights in the fifties) and Oxford Street were the most stunning.  Their festively decorated and illuminated displays changed themes and colors each year instilling all viewers with the magical spirit of Christmas. We also visited Trafalgar Square to stare in amazement at the huge Norwegian spruce Christmas tree, a gift to England each year from Norway in appreciation for Britain’s support during World War II.

Robby and Candace

Other magnificent Christmas Trees could be seen all over the city – in stores, in restaurants and in hotels – and one of my favorites was in the Connaught Hotel located in the elegant and posh area of Mayfair.  Theirs was spectacular, as were all of their holiday decorations that fit perfectly with the old-world feel of this storied hotel.  The gentle crackle of the fireplaces and the heavenly scent of the fir trees made me feel like I was back in Victorian times.  I could easily imagine Charles Dickens in the warm and intimate Connaught Bar sitting in one of their handsome leather chairs sipping a gin punch, his favorite drink.  Certainly, the presence of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, could be felt here- as he could throughout the city.  After all, it was Prince Albert who introduced England to the custom of the Christmas tree, something he brought with him from his native Germany.

The Connaught was also one of my favorite places to dine during the Christmas season.  They not only had traditional English Christmas dishes like game and roast beef on their menu, but roast turkey as well – something I originally thought was exclusively an American holiday dish.   I was actually surprised to learn that turkey had been a holiday favorite in England for years.  Although turkeys are not native to England, people in the UK began to eat them when King Henry VIII began having turkey for Christmas dinner back in the 16thcentury.

I also frequently visited London on my own during the Christmas season, not only to enjoy the festive decorations but also to do my Christmas shopping – food-gifts being at the top of my list.  My very favorite destination was the celebrated and historic Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly, the most glamorous and intimate food emporium in all of London.  Their handsome decor and glistening chandeliers put you in the mood for Christmas shopping as soon as you walked onto their plush crimson carpet.  Nutcracker-decorated tins of biscuits, fancy jars of jam and honey, and colorful containers of their own special blend of Christmas Tea were just some of the many gifts I purchased to bring back to the U.S. each holiday season.

For my own personal consumption, I bought my first Christmas Pudding at Fortnum and Mason called the St. James.  Once again, I was first introduced to this pudding in Dicken’s novel, A Christmas Carol.  But I had never eaten one.

It is a steamed cake-like dessert comprised of dried fruits, candied citrus, flour, suet and eggs.  “Figgy Pudding” is another name for this dessert which dates back to the 14th century.  Topped with holly, drenched with brandy, and then set alight, it makes for a flaming and very dramatic ending to the meal.  It was surprisingly “light and elegant”.  I loved its lovely spicy flavor.

My mother ‘s version– a steamed cranberry pudding served with a hard sauce – was not nearly as complicated a recipe as the English version, yet still has the same fruity and spicy flavor.  Hers, however, was never lit – a bit of a disappointment once I learned how the real English steamed pudding gave such a theatrical ending to their meal.

© rob warner photography 2021

Steamed Cranberry Pudding with Hard Sauce
(serves 6)

2 teaspoons baking soda
½ cup hot water
1 tablespoon white sugar
½ cup molasses
2 cups whole cranberries
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve the baking powder in hot water.  Stir in 1 tablespoon sugar and the molasses, then mix in the cranberries and flour.  Pour into a greased 6 cup steamer mold.

Cover the mold tightly with tin foil.  Place on a rack in a deep kettle.  Add boiling water until water reaches 1 inch above the bottom of the mold.  Cover kettle. Bring water to a gentle boil.  Steam for 1 ½ hours until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Add more boiling water if necessary.

Cool for 10 minutes.  Unmold pudding and cool 30 minutes. In the meantime, make the hard sauce.

Hard Sauce
1.2 cup unsalted butter
½ cup cream
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Make sauce just before serving the pudding.  Heat the butter, cream and 1 cup sugar and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook stirring until heated through and smooth. Serve warm pudding with warm Hard Sauce.

make ahead tip
To make ahead, wrap and store cooled pudding in the refrigerator.  To reheat, wrap pudding in foil and place on baking sheet.  Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes or until heated through.

While living in England, I also discovered Christmas Crackers at Fortnum and Mason.  Christmas Crackers are festive table decorations that when pulled apart from either end reveal a small gift, a riddle or a joke and a party hat inside. The noise that it makes when they are pulled is a “snap” or “cracking” sound which is what gave them their name.  The Fortnum and Mason selection was incredible – everything from fun Nutcracker designed crackers, silly reindeer festooned crackers to the more elegant and classic gold and red crackers.  Once I discovered this custom, I quickly incorporated it into our annual Christmas ceremony.  How fun I thought, and it was.  The paper hats, usually worn when eating Christmas dinner, is a tradition that supposedly dates to Roman times.  Everyone looks rather silly but that only adds to the festive and fun vibe of Christmas Day

I carried these Christmas crackers home in my suitcase each Christmas when I returned to the States.  Some stores like Asprey even offered “luxury crackers” with custom gifts inside like sterling silver trinkets.  The crackers could costs upwards of $1,000 for six, so needless to say, I chose the less extravagant ones.  When we eventually moved back to America, I had them shipped from England, though now they are everywhere – available in almost every store that carries Christmas decorations.  American Christmas is now completely Anglicized, crackers and all.

My mom, Robby, my Dad, Candace and I with Christmas cracker hats

Christmas is a glorious season for me.  I find the annual embrace of tradition and history to be incredibly comforting and reassuring at the end of a long year.  I also find it soothing to repeat the various events, festivities and meals that have been a part of my life as far back as I remember.  It re-connects our family each December and it reminds us of those who have passed on.  But I also believe that a certain amount of reinvention and breaking with tradition compels us to expand our horizons and find new ways to celebrate not just the holiday, but each other.  This is what I did when we moved back to the states after our years in England, both at home and eventually with my business.  When I opened my Italian wine and food market shortly after returning to the US, I began a journey of honoring tradition and innovation that was profoundly influenced by how I celebrated with my own family.  Beginning that journey (which I am still on forty-plus years later) opened a whole new chapter for me– not just during the holidays but in every moment of my life.  And as much as change forced itself into my life, I made sure certain holiday traditions always remained the same.

My next blog focuses on those many new and exciting Christmas adventures – each one meaningful in its own way and each establishing new traditions, though always mindful of the past.  No matter where I go, who I’m with, whether I’m preparing the meal or sitting at someone else’s table; whether the meal is traditional or completely new; Christmas remains my very favorite time of the year.

My Dad on Christmas morning

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My Journey Into The Kitchen: “Flying High”

 

In 1988 I was chosen to be one of fifteen award-winning chefs assembled by American Airlines as an elite culinary consultation team tasked with developing the penultimate in-flight food service.  In the Spring of 1989, all of us arrived at American Airlines headquarters in Dallas for our first meeting full of aspirational ideas and impressive resumes, but were quickly disabused of any notion that an airline galley kitchen would be the place from which our sometimes-outsized culinary notions would be launched.  Cost, it was emphasized was always to be considered.  Though we wouldn’t be responsible for costing out any menu items we developed, we were informed  that removing just one olive from every salad served on the airline could save $40,000.  That thought served as a cautionary tale.

Excited and full of enthusiasm, I had flown to Texas with good friend and fellow Conclave member, Leslee Reis of the iconic Café Provencal to meet the rest of the members and to learn from American Airline executives just what they expected of us.  I anticipated that the day would be quite daunting.  How often had I been asked to consult with one of the largest companies in the world?  

 

 

Our agenda was jam-packed.  Not only did we learn about the goals for the Conclave, but we were also presented with a surprisingly interesting history of American Airline’s past food and beverage service.  It was decided that we would meet as a group once a year in Dallas or in one of the Conclave members’ home cities, and that American Airlines’ food and beverage staff would bring us up to date on any significant changes that were relevant to our mission.  Consideration of current food philosophy and trends would be on the agenda, as well as a discussion of any problems American needed the Conclave’s help in solving.  Individual projects – most likely to take place at headquarters in Texas – would also be a part of our job.

Our heads crammed with new information, we eventually adjourned to a private dining room for a lunch consisting of dishes currently served in first class.  After being informed that we would be asked to critique those dishes later, I certainly gave more scrutiny to what was set before me than I would have under normal circumstances.  Very friendly, professional flight attendants served us so many dishes that in order to comment on them later most of us began taking notes.  Little was said about the food as it was being served, however when lunch was over and the critiques began all hell broke loose over one dish in particular.  “Over designed!”  Contrived!”  “Not in keeping with today’s styles!” The lobster entree suffered some of the most withering criticism I have ever heard!  This dish, everyone agreed was “old fashioned” – something that would have been served in a pretentious second-tier French restaurant in the nineteen-fifties.  American’s food and beverage employees had been invited by the executives to stick around to hear our notes on the meal and I watched with sympathy from the corner of my eye as their offerings were eviscerated.  But instead of being offended, they seemed genuinely engaged in the conversation and took copious notes, not seeming to mind our brutally frank reviews.  I actually think at least some of them agreed, but like professional poker players they never let us know what they were thinking.  One thing I’m sure ran through their minds was “what the hell have we unleashed by asking professional chefs to criticize airplane food” since I was thinking the very same thing.

Next up was a tour of their catering facilities.  We entered a kitchen the scale of which I had never seen before: a room the size of a football field, as clean as a hospital operating room and cluttered with hundreds and hundreds of aluminum pots – some the size of Volkswagens – all kinds bubbling with soups, sauces and stews.  The room was populated by white-clad chefs busily chopping, sautéing and prepping foods of all kinds.  We wandered through the facility stopping occasionally to talk to one of them about what they were making or to ask questions about the scale of the operation.  The packing area was equally impressive with an assembly-line-like operation that would not have been out of place in a science fiction film.  Packaged meals ended up either in huge refrigeration units or on a loading dock where they would be transferred directly to their designated airplane.

Our last stop was onboard a 747 where we took turns crowding into the tiny galley kitchen where flight attendants showed us where the meals were stored and gave us a lesson about their convection oven specifically designed for heating pre-cooked, chilled in-flight meals.  The vastness of the catering facility compared to the minute scale of the galley was mind-blowing.  It was at this very moment when all of us began to recognize the complexities of our assignment and the challenges of the whole operation.  Preparing and serving some 100,000 meals a day is slightly different then cooking for 50 to 100 customers in a restaurant kitchen.  The purpose of this tour I am sure was designed for just that reason – to illustrate the almost impossible challenge of combining fine dining and air travel – and to help us all clearly understand our new assignment.  And to be a little humbled by it.

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Flying back to Chicago at the end of that very busy day, my head was swimming with new information about an international business carried on the backs of tens of thousands of employees  that was known not only for its strong commitment of excellence to its customers, but also to its employees and business partners.  The Chefs’ Conclave was but a small part of American Airline’s overall operation, but I realized on that first day that whatever assignments we would be given, I would need to take them seriously.

I quickly came to believe that the greatest contribution I could make to this partnership would come mainly from my experience in creating high-end “Prepared Food” for the take-away side of Convito’s business.  Most of the other chefs in the Conclave had restaurants with Michelin stars or famous pedigrees, but not many of them had my background in transforming gourmet cuisine from a restaurant dish to something customers could successfully take from our store, to their oven (or microwave), to their kitchen table.  Over the years I learned countless dos and don’ts about prepared foods that I suspected would translate well to the airline food service industry: that not all food translates well to reheating, that certain ingredients don’t do well at common storage temperatures, that some dishes look terrible after reheating no matter how fresh the ingredients or preparation. 

My very first assignment in Dallas was tasting new dishes that the American Airline chefs had created for their fall menu.  When I was given one of these individual assignments, I was generally joined by a few AA food and beverage employees, one or two senior flight attendants, as well as another member of the Conclave.  Conclave members took turns with these “tasting” assignments designed to get our take on the look and the flavor of each new item, an exercise that took place whenever there was a big menu change, often a few times a year.  The number of dishes up for review was – as usual – overwhelming.  It reminded me of the wine tastings I frequently attended where bottle after bottle was lined up for tasting – sometimes over a hundred – which severely taxed one’s palate.  Taking notes and reviewing the meals was actually quite fascinating given their surprising quality.  Except for a few, we gave most of them high marks.  The rejected dishes were often too bland, drowned in cream sauce or simply poor candidates for reheating.  But the most frequent rejection was because they were deemed too spicy.  The flight attendants there that day warned us that spiciness was by far their most frequently heard complaint (and they hear it all – the good and the bad).  No one wants a belly full of over-spiced food at 35,000’.

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After a few years as part of the Conclave I was given what turned out to be my favorite assignment when I was asked to develop a dish that would embody the spirit of my own restaurant – a feature of their in-flight menu called Signature Dishes.   The American Airlines food execs were hoping for a pasta dish from Convito which I agreed with.  Where we differed – initially – was that I wanted to do something less in the noodle-and-sauce category and instead focus on something heartier that was inspired by Convito’s ever-popular lasagnas and cannellonis.  I wasn’t surprised when they agreed with my initial idea, but I didn’t expect that a group of their Food and Beverage team would want to come to Convito for a demonstration.  Six AA employees – including two chefs – came to our kitchen for a full day of lasagna-making, tasting and discussions.  

 

American employees at Convito in the kitchen

Adjusting to a small kitchen for the AA chefs had to be as strange as my adjustment to their huge facility.  Both of the American Airlines chefs who were with me that day were used to working in very large kitchens, but found themselves quite comfortable in my smaller, more intimate setting.  Convito certainly had some large pieces of equipment, but the scale was nothing compared to theirs.  During the course of their observation, we made several dishes including a sausage and wild mushroom lasagna, a spinach & mushroom lasagna and something they eventually selected as my first Signature Dish – our Garden Fresh Lasagna.  After our kitchen demos we all adjourned to lunch in the café, which included at least four or five more lasagnas, a few cannellonis and many of Convito’s sauces over assorted pastas.  Though Convito’s kitchen may have been smaller than what they were used to, I did my best to match the culinary volume I experienced on that first trip I took to Dallas.  But unlike that day, we all managed to pace ourselves this time!  The whole event was not only great fun, but a wonderful chance to get to know the people I would be working with in the coming years in a more intimate setting and on my home turf.

I shared with them the recipes for many of the dishes we ate that day and within months their choice of our Garden Fresh Lasagna was being served aboard flights all over the world (albeit renamed simply Garden Lasagna).  To this day I wish I would have gotten to see our single-pan recipe enlarged to the volumes they needed!

 

© rob warner photography 2021

Garden Fresh Lasagna
12 servings

 

12 lasagna noodles
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup chopped onion
1 small clove garlic, minced
16 oz. can crushed tomatoes
4 fresh basil leaves, chopped
salt & pepper to taste
2¼ cups ricotta cheese
3 cups shredded mozzarella
2 ¼ cups grated parmesan
salt and pepper
1 ½ cups zucchini
1 ½ cups broccoli
1 ½ cups diced carrots
¼ cup scallions

 

Tomato Basil Sauce
Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft.  Add tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper and simmer the sauce for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.  Set aside

Zucchini filling
1 ½ cups zucchini diced (do not peel, do not use soft center) in ¼ inch pieces
Season with salt and pepper and sauté with olive oil for approximately 1 minute.  Set aside

Carrot filling
1 ½ cups carrots, peeled, diced in ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup scallions, chopped (green part only)
Season with salt and pepper and sauté in olive oil for 2 minutes.  Set aside

Broccoli filling
1 ½ cups broccoli heads cut into small pieces and briefly blanched al dente.
Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside

Assembly
Cook the lasagna noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente according to package directions.  Rinse with cold water and drain.  Lay flat.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread a thin layer of the tomato-basil sauce onto the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Cover the layer of tomato sauce with 3 noodles

Sprinkle with:
Sautéed zucchini filling (drained well)
¾ cup of ricotta
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup parmesan

Cover with 3 more noodles and sprinkle with:
¾ cup of ricotta
Carrots/shallot mixture (drained well)
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup parmesan

Cover with 3 more noodles and sprinkle with:
¾ cup of ricotta
Steamed broccoli (drained well)
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup parmesan

End with remaining 3 noodles

Top with remaining tomato sauce spread evenly over noodles

Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan

Cover and bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until bubbly.  Let stand for 15 minutes before cutting into serving pieces

 

Besides the prestige and the PR associated with having been chosen for the Chef’s Conclave, the biggest Conclave perk was our compensation – four First Class tickets to anywhere American flew for each and every project we participated in!  And more for our special assignments.   Since I was still travelling to Europe several times a year this was a great benefit.  And because I began to collect more tickets than I could use on my own, my young-adult children also got used to flying First Class.  Rob once flew in style to a backpacking trip in Ecuador where between flights he spent weeks in a tent or hostels, and Candace and her husband used them for several European trips as well as a sojourn to Chile where they visited Santiago and then traveled to the Lake District.  “Who doesn’t like the indulgence of flying First Class, Mom”?   Certainly I did!

Using two of these tickets on a flight to Paris with my daughter – and now business partner – Candace, we were surprised when our menus arrived and Convito’s Signature Dish – the Garden Lasagna was on the menu alongside my name and restaurant.  It had been over a year since those American employees had visited Convito for a pasta demonstration so I was not sure when and where it would appear on the menu.  And there it was!

Candace and I, of course, both ordered “our dish,” as did the man sitting across the aisle from us.  I was relieved when the lasagna arrived, because not only did it look great, but it was also delicious.  “This lasagna was fantastic” he commented to our flight attendant as she cleared his tray.  Knowing that I was on the plane (she had recognized me as I came aboard from my photo in the in-flight magazine), she turned and pointed to me as the chef responsible for the dish.  Yikes!  I instantly wondered whether she would have done the same if he hadn’t liked it.   I’m not good at being singled out unexpectedly like that, but we ended up having a pleasant conversation about Italian food in general.  He was a frequent flyer and said he usually chose to order pasta when flying: “It always seems to be the most reliable choice.” Fortunately we delivered on his expectations!

Serving the Signature Dishes was just one of the many ways American Airlines promoted us.  Another was by featuring us in the American Way in-flight magazine, either in features that celebrated the Conclave in general or in individual articles.  One series called Meet The Chef focused on our personal background, information about our restaurants and a list of our favorites: meals, wines, cookbooks and restaurants.  The magazine would also occasionally create little blurby articles that featured wine, food and restaurant recommendations of various Conclave chefs.  So over time I was profiled quite a few times.  And without fail, a few weeks after publication of one of these articles, a surprising number of Convito customers would come in with their in-flight menus or torn-out magazine pages to show me.  I think they were proud that they frequented a restaurant and market that was featured on the airline they had just flown, as was I!  Clearly, I was not just contributing advice to AA, but my restaurant and market were getting invaluable PR in return.

 

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The conferences that were held in Chef Conclave cities always culminated in a special dinner at the host chef’s restaurant.  The food was – of course – always excellent, but my most vivid memories of those dinners were rarely about what we ate.  I’ll never get over my memory of standing (very tightly packed) in Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul kitchen in New Orleans’ French Quarter trying to imagine how in the world this large man managed to cook all the amazing and complex Cajun and Creole dishes in this very small space.  I figured he probably related to those airline galley kitchens more than most of us!  During our conference meetings I always looked forward to hearing Paul’s comments.  He was a free-thinking, creative and optimistic man whose foremost desire was to infuse more flavor into everything – his food and even life. At the same time, he was practical and recognized the airline’s limitations.  I found him fascinating.

I also enjoyed the dinner we had at Jasper White’s spacious Summer Shack in Boston where the casual atmosphere allowed us all to mingle as we enjoyed a bounty of fish and seafood dishes.  Jasper is one of the leading authorities and trusted resources on fish and New England cuisine and I loved his novel take on the traditional New England Clam Shack.  It was an evening filled with the kind of energy that Jasper himself exuded.  I had partnered with him during a Chef Conclave visit to Sid Wainer, an award winning specialty food wholesaler just outside of Boston.  Jasper and I came up with a cheese plate with all the trimmings including dried fruit and nuts that would serve as an alternative to in-flight desserts.  To this day I often serve a similar dish when I entertain.

So many of those conferences have a place in my list of favorite professional experiences.  The vibrant colors and flavors of Douglas Rodriguez’s “Nuevo Latino” Patria in New York City was another Conclave highlight, as was an evening spent in a lovely tented area outside of Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Inn in Marin County just north of San Francisco.  The multi-course dinner was held to celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary and featured an abundance of excellent dishes that were specialties of the restaurant, each with a wine paring.  It was a long – but delicious – evening.

As I think back over these events, I have come to realize that all of the dinners at Conclave restaurants were both delicious and completely unique.  We had several dinners in Dallas where Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing presented amazing meals from their restaurants that featured authentic and sophisticated Southwestern fare which before I spent time with them I had believed to be incompatible concepts.  I was certainly familiar with Southwestern food, but nowhere had I experienced it at this level.  Both Stephan and Dean had multiple restaurants over the years and I have eaten in most of them and was never disappointed.  

But easily my favorite Conclave meal remains the one we were served at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkley, California.  True to her now-celebrated philosophy, everything Alice served us was organic, simple and locally grown.  I especially remember the lovely small fennel bulbs still attached to their light feathery dill-like leaves placed effortlessly on a table next to little bowls of olive oil.   This served as our appetizer – crunchy fennel dipped in glorious extra virgin olive oil.  Divine!  The minestrone course – a light broth filled with local vegetables served with Chez Panisse crusty bread is still a mouth-watering memory I can taste to this day.  Simple and incredibly delicious.  As the years passed Alice never deviated from her original mission – the champion of local sustainable agriculture.  “The Mother of American Food” as she became known, it was inspiring to work with someone so focused and dedicated to her principles.

 

Cannelloni making at Convito

My focus was, of course, Italian cuisine.  Continuing to work with various food and beverage staff developing individual items for their menus was always a pleasure.  After their trip to Convito, I continued to counsel them about uses for the sauce recipes I shared with them.  Most were used for the usual pasta-sauce combination, but others they got creative with.  At one point they combined our gorgonzola-spinach sauce with mashed potatoes and served it with steak.   I would never have thought of that and it worked like a dream!

 

 

Convito’s lasagnas and cannellonis continued to be popular items for both our customers and the airline since they were so well suited to reheating.  One recipe American adopted was one I developed for my daughter’s wedding that was catered by Convito in the historic and elegant Chicago Cultural Center.  I used only ingredients that she loved; chicken, mushrooms, spinach, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan.  We named it Country Cannelloni.  I’m not sure what it was called on the American menu, but I do know that they served it for years.

 

© rob warner photography 2021

Country Cannelloni
(makes 12 pieces)

For the pasta and filling:
8 sheets lasagna pasta
4 tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup chopped mushrooms
1/3 cup chopped spinach
1 ¼ cups ricotta cheese
¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup cooked, diced chicken breast
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated pepper

Sauce ingredients
1 small onion, minced
1 x 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
3 x basil leaves
salt & pepper top taste
¼  cup mascarpone cheese

 

Cook the lasagna according to package directions or until al dent.  Drain, rinse in cold water and reserve.

Filling (part 1)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add mushrooms and cook until slightly golden – approximately 4 minutes.  Add spinach and cook until just wilted.  Remove from heat and reserve in refrigerator to cool.

Sauce
In the skillet used for the mushrooms, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat.   Add the onions, sauté until soft.  Add the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper and continue to cook until sauce begins to thicken, approximately 15 minutes.  Strain the sauce and fold in the mascarpone. 

Filling (part 2)
Mix together the ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, chicken breast, egg, salt and pepper in a large bowl until well combined. Add the cooled mushrooms and spinach mixture and combine well.

Assembly
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.

Coat the bottom of the dish with a thin layer of the sauce. Cut lasagna sheets in half to make 4-inch squares. Divide the filling into 12 portions.  To form the cannelloni, spread filling evening along the edge of each square.  Carefully roll up pasta and place in baking dish, seam side down.  Top the cannelloni with the remaining sauce and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbling.



My most fun assignment was developing a Signature Dish specifically for a flight from Chicago to Rome.  I created it in coordination with Lisa Smith (now Lisa Smith King) one of the airline’s chief employees in charge of menu and recipe development.  She was exceptionally good at taking a concept from its inception all the way through to its final execution, which for a big company like American, is very complicated.  She was also incredibly knowledgeable about food in general, had a healthy respect for the collaborative process and was simply a fun working partner as well. 

Initially I had been asked to develop something with beef for the Rome dish.  Beef – especially steak – was one of the most popular items ordered on first class, but many of the Conclave chefs had been consistently critical of it.  Because meat has to be pre-cooked and reconstituted in the flight convection ovens, it was difficult to effectively and consistently achieve the texture and flavor required for a good steak. But eliminating steak was not an option since it remained one of the airline’s most popular menu choices, so we got creative.

Lisa and I had a long discussion about beef in general and we decided to develop a stew.  Lisa suggested that we use tenderloin instead chuck, the meat commonly used for stew.  Because chuck requires long and slow cooking she wanted something that cooked faster.  Beef tenderloin has all the flavor of its slow cooked counterpoint and requires much less cooking time, but…it is more expensive.  Time is money, a consideration for a large catering facility like American, so after she made a cost-benefit analysis, we realized the time-savings cost more than the higher per-pound cost and we embraced the tenderloin!  Additionally, tenderloin adds a bit more “prestige” than chuck.  Our dish might not replace steak, but it would match better with First Class expectations.  And maybe even appeal to some of the steak lovers.

Basic parameters settled on, my goal became giving the dish an Italian flair.  After much mulling, I eventually suggested that the stew be topped with three Gnocchi alla Romana – flat semolina gnocchi that would not only act as a kind of attractive “lid” for the dish but would also be delicious when mixed with the gravy in the stew.  Gnocchi alla Romana, after all, is a cornerstone of Roman cuisine and like stew, is considered a comfort food.  I never was on a flight to Rome when it was on the menu, but Lisa presented me with the dish during one of my trips to Dallas.  I loved both the look and the flavor and was told that it was a very popular choice on that flight. 

I was even asked for the recipe from one of the American customers who had ordered the dish on his Rome flight. I told him that the recipe – like all American Airlines recipes – was huge, so I didn’t actually have a small-scale version of it.  I told him that the ingredients were beef tenderloin (not chuck!), mushrooms, shallots and red wine.  Hopefully that helped.  I did, however, send him my own gnocchi recipe.

 

© rob warner photography 2021

Gnocchi alla Romana
(Semolina Gnocchi)

4 cups milk
1 cup semolina flour
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter 
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
ground pepper
2 egg yolks

Reduce the heat to low.  Slowly add the semolina flour in a steady thin stream continually stirring the mixture with a whisk.  It should cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes total or until it becomes thick and pulls away from the side of the pan. You may need to switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon as you continue stirring and the mixture begins to thicken.  Remove from the heat.  Allow mixture to cool for a minute or two.

Stir in 2/3 of grated Parmesan, 2 tablespoons of the butter, and the salt.  Season to taste with the pepper.  Allow mixture to cook slightly.  When somewhat cooled, add the egg yolks and quickly mix until thoroughly incorporated.

Moisten a half sheet pan with cold water and allow excess water to drip off the pan.  Spoon the hot semolina mixture onto the moistened sheet pan with a spatula smoothing it out to form an even layer about ½ inch thick.  Let cool for 30 to 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Grease the bottom and sides of a of an oven-safe baking dish (2 quarts) with butter.  Using a biscuit cutter (2.5-inch), cut the semolina into disks, dipping the biscuit cutter into cold water frequently to prevent sticking.  Transfer and layer the semolina rounds into the greased baking dish, overlapping slightly and not overlapping Dot the top of the gnocchi with the remaining butter and the remaining Parmesan.  Bake uncovered for 15–20 minutes until a light golden brown.  Allow gnocchi to cool for a few minutes.

Use gnocchi rounds as a topping for a stew, hearty soup or even salad.

 

2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the Chef’s Conclave.  To celebrate those twenty years, a lunch was held in Dallas for some of American Airline’s best frequent flyer customers and Dean Fearing, Stephen Pyles and I were asked to attend.  Dean and Stephan conducted cooking demonstrations in one room while I passed out samples of one of Convito’s lasagna in another room.  All three of us answered questions.   Guests were especially curious about the Conclave and the challenges of our group’s mission.  Airline food, they pointed out, certainly didn’t have a good reputation.  It was our goal, we pointed out, to dispel that image.  They were especially fascinated about the challenges of the tiny galley kitchen on board.  Until you actually experience the enormity of the catering kitchen and the tininess of the galley kitchens, it is hard to fully appreciate those challenges.  Initially the Conclave did not appreciate that either.  We did our best to articulate how hard it was to create a fine experience dining aboard an airliner flying 500mph at 35,000 feet, but it was lost on most of the guests.  They were simply thrilled to be in close proximity to two of Dallas’s most famous chefs – Stephan and Dean, and to be given the VIP treatment.

 

 

American suspended the 25-year old Chefs’ Conclave program when it started to merge with US Airways in 2013.  By this time, Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing and I were the last three remaining chefs.  Of course, we were sorry to see it all end, but also enormously thankful for the opportunity it had given us – to consult with one of the largest companies in the world.  It was quite a “ride” while it lasted.

I would like to think that we were successful in steering the airline menus toward healthier, lighter fare and also toward foods that could be done well in-flight.  Serving meals consumed aboard an airline designed for travel, not entertaining was an enormous challenge.  Even though difficult, we always emphasized simple and delicious dishes using fresh, high quality products.  I believe the Conclave – as a group and individually – had been used well by American and benefited from our advice.

Before my time in the Conclave, I certainly knew about the importance of food cost and labor cost – but not on the American Airlines scale.  Serving on the Conclave focused me even more on those elements crucial to operating a successful food-service business.  There’s a real art to balancing quality and cost and no matter how great the food may be, if costs are not under control, it is impossible to keep the doors open. I vowed to never let that be our downfall.  

I also learned even more about the kinds of food that lent themselves well to the reheating process – lessons perfect for my market dishes.  And then, of course, working with all the chefs in the Conclave and learning about their businesses, their approach to marketing, their food and menu philosophy was both tremendously valuable and personally rewarding.

What will happen with airline food after the pandemic is anyone’s guess.  I’m sure some things will return to some version of what they were before, but we all look at everything differently today.  Maybe a new set at consultants will be enlisted by American Airlines – chefs who will give a whole new perspective to food and beverage service.  Whatever the future brings, I will always be thankful that I was able be a part of American Airline’s Chefs’ Conclave. 

Chefs Conclave(L to R): Michael Dellar, Nancy Brussat, Mark Miller, Wolfgang Puck, Robert Del Grande, Allen Susser, Paul Prudhomme, Dean Fearing, Douglas Rodriguez, Jasper White, Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, Alice Waters seated Stephan Pyles, Bradley Ogden

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My Journey into the Kitchen “Les Dames D’Escoffier: My Culinary Village”

Les Dames Chicago 20th Anniversary fundraiser at the Ritz Carlton

A simple cup of coffee in the morning always brightens my mood and gives me the spark I need to seize the day.  But when that cup of coffee was shared with my mentor, friend and Café Provencal owner Leslee Reis, it was she that picked me up, not the coffee.  Leslee was my morning jolt, my inspiration.  From the day we met we shared many of the same passions: a love of food, an obsession with travel, and a decidedly offbeat sense of humor.  Laughter was our common elixir.

We began meeting for morning coffee in the late sixties but those get togethers were infrequent given the demands of our young children.  However, after I moved back from England in 1979, seeing Leslee became an essential part of my day.  What we had in common at this point was immense: we were two women in our thirties each with two teenage children and both up to our eyeballs in the food industry – Leslee opened her restaurant Café Provencal in 1977 and I opened my food and wine market Convito Italiano in 1980.

We needed one another.  Our coffee-sipping sessions became therapeutic – the perfect time to swap ideas and support one another in both our personal and professional lives.  Then one morning Leslee told me about a recent project – her involvement in an organization called Les Dames d’Escoffier.  She was a charter member of the newly formed Chicago Chapter.  As she described it, Les Dames was an organization of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality professions that was originally formed in the early-seventies in New York City.  The goal of the organization was to open up the world of food, wine and hospitality to women in an industry which – like many others at that time – was rife with discrimination.  During those initial years, the New York Chapter focused on challenging patriarchal hiring practices, championing pay equity and encouraging professional educational opportunities for women in the industry.  Though their mission was met with resistance typical of anything which advocates for systemic change to the status quo, there were many professionals – women, as well as men – who supported their goals enthusiastically.  Some ten years after its formation, the New York Chapter began reaching out to women in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. to form what would soon become an international organization to promote the advancement of women in the culinary industry all over the world.

One morning Leslee told me she was going to propose me for membership.  As lofty and as important as the goals of this organization seemed, and as much as they clearly echoed many of the problems Leslee and I had pondered, I was hesitant to commit myself to anything other than my business at this point.  Adding more responsibilities to my already hectic life didn’t seem like a good idea considering I already felt at a loss to find enough time for my family and my business.  However…how could I say no to Leslee Reis?!  The woman sitting across from me sipping her coffee was about to begin a jam-packed day running her world-renowned restaurant  while taking care of her family as well.  Was her schedule any less packed than mine?  The answer was no, so of course I said YES and told her that I was honored to be considered for membership.

What a life changing decision that turned out to be.  It wasn’t long before I realized that everyone in this organization was in the same position I was in, juggling professional responsibilities with personal commitments.  But that didn’t change the fact that I waded into the organization cautiously.  My initial participation in Les Dames was minimal – attending a few programs here and there – but quickly grew more substantial after I began to meet one interesting member after another.  It didn’t take long to realize I had found myself amongst a very special group of women who willingly gave up their time and energy to bring change to our industry, to provide opportunities to women in the beginning of their careers and to support each other whenever and however they could.  I was sold!  Only two years after I joined I accepted a position on the Board.  After that I became the Fundraising Chair, then the Membership Chair, then President of the Chicago Chapter (1991 to 1993) and eventually President of Les Dames International (1995 to 1996).  I became Chapter President again in 2007 and have held various other positions along the way.  It is amazing how one can find the time to do anything when you become a part of a group whose cause you so firmly believe in.  You simply make the time.  And saying you’re  “too busy” in this particular group of women are words you dare not utter.

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Leslee Reis

Over the years I eventually came to realize that Leslee gave me an incredible gift, a professional support team of women who shared my interests and who have enriched my life in so many different ways.  They were not just enthusiastic about food and wine, they were professionals whose expertize in their respective fields offered me – offered all of us – a wealth of invaluable information and perspective.  Many of these women became good friends, cooking buddies and some even traveling partners.  Our culinary interests made for strong connections.  We saw food in similar ways – as a great unifier that connects us across culture and generation.  It wasn’t just about taste.  Food was about much more than just eating. Food is history, it is tradition, and it is art.  As our most famous Grande Dame, Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the very best people”!

 

Leslee And I at Riviera party

My first Les Dames cooking and traveling buddy was – of course – my sponsor Leslee Reis.  During the early-eighties when Leslee and I were consumed with our respective restaurant careers as well as our Les Dames membership, we still somehow found time to cook together.  Our most celbrated collaboration was our “Riviera Party” where we created  dish after dish of Mediterranean fare that reflected the flavors of both of our restaurants – Italy and southern France. Our party was held outside at my Glencoe home on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Both the weather and the party turned out to be perfect!

 

 

 

The Chicago Tribune even wrote an article about it with the headline –  “Though Guests couldn’t quite see the Riviera, the flavor was there”. The article continued, Perhaps the next best thing to being on the Riviera is going to a party that recreates its sensuous, spirited feeling.  That’s what Nancy Barocci and Leslee Reis did one recent Sunday evening when 80 friends savored delicacies of the Mediterranean and partied in the relaxed spirit of the famous region.”  Recipes for Nicoise Salad, Rosemary Walnuts, Spinach, Onion and Egg Tian and the below were included in the article.

 

 

Leslee’s Crudites with Aioli

 

Fresh Vegetables (choose among the following)
Carrots with tops
Celery with leafy tops
Radishes with leafy tops
Cucumbers
Small zucchini, summer squash
Green and red peppers
Green onions
Whole mushrooms
Belgian endive
Hard cooked eggs

Garlic mayonnaise
3-4 firms cloves garlic, peeled
1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup good quality olive oil

In a wicker basket, put an assortment of vegetables and hard-cooked eggs.

For garlic mayonnaise, drop garlic into food processor.  Process until finely chopped.  Add egg yolk, salt and lemon juice; process to blend.  With the machine running, drizzle olive oil into machine in slow steady stream.  Process until smooth. Taste and season accordingly.

 

Cooking with Leslee was a joy but traveling with her to Italy and France was even better.  Her curiosity and sharp wit made each day a new adventure.  We viewed travel and life in much the same way – taste and savor it – but don’t crowd in too much.  You must have time to reflect on what you’ve seen or tasted, to let everything steep! What I liked best about her companionship was that we agreed up front that we didn’t have to be stuck together like glue.  If she wanted to nap and I wanted to go to a museum – or vice versa, that was fine.   However, we always came back together for lunch and dinner; sometimes taking detailed notes on the wine and food we were enjoying and sometimes barely commenting on the food and just living in the moment.   Either way, we always found time to discuss our profession and in what way we could benefit the women in our community who were not as fortunate as we were.

 

Leslee and I with Count Alighieri at his Veneto vineyard

Our very last trip together was especially wonderful.  We started in Venice then drove through much of Veneto then Friuli-Venezia Giulia ending up in Lombardia visiting many of the friends I had acquired since opening Convito. Leslee’s compelling personality charmed everyone she met: the famed grappa producing Nonino family in Friuli; Sandro Boscaini, owner of the prestigious Masi winery in Veneto; Luigi Lazzaroni, the biscuit king from Saronno and finally Neil & Maria Empson, leading Italian wine exporters living in Milan.  She not only delighted each person she met, but also impressed them with her keen intellect and comedic delivery.  You simply could not be around Leslee without having a stimulating and marvelous time.

Our last night in Italy was spent with Neil & Maria Empson.  As the evening wore on and our conversations became more intimate, Neil decided to share a touching story about finding and reconnecting with his long-lost daughter.  Though all these years later I don’t recall all the details, but I do know that I was moved enough that I would forever feel a closeness to Neil that took shape over that night.  Leslee was also touched by Neil’s story, but to a degree that almost made me look callous!  So moved was she that Neil had to ask the waiter for a box of Kleenex to soak up Leslee’s tears.  By the time our evening ended and Leslee had emptied the entire box of Kleenex, it was clear that the Empson’s were smitten – and pledged they would visit Café Provencal in Evanston during their next visit to Chicago.  Sadly, that would not happen.

 

Leslee passed away about a year after this trip in 1990 at age 47.  She was in New Orleans with her husband and our mutual friends George Schaefer (owner of the iconic Schaefer Wine & Spirits) and his wife Cookie when she had a heart attack.  The Schaefers and I celebrated Leslee not long after she died with a recreation of the last dinner she and I shared on our final trip to Italy at Antica Trattoria Suban on the outskirts of Trieste.  That meal was absolutely delicious and incredibly substantial (the owner learned we both owned restaurants, so he added many courses to the ones we had already ordered).  That was one night when Leslee and I had taken copious notes, so I had all the information I needed when I decided to sell it at a Les Dames auction as a meal to be cooked in the future at Convito.  The Schaefer’s bought it and invited me to join.  We all looked forward to this “Suban Dinner” night when we could enjoy both a fantastic meal as well as “Leslee stories”.  She was one of a kind.  George and I often talked about the impact Leslee had on our lives both professionally and personally and how very much we enjoyed being in her presence.  (George had been the consultant for Leslee’s wine lists at all three of her restaurants – Café Provencal, Leslee’s and Bodega Bay).

 

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Nancy Harris

Another cooking buddy, Nancy Harris, entered my life at the same time that I became a member of Les Dames since we were in the same “charter group”.  Nancy was the former director of Cooks Mart Cooking School in Chicago and owner of Moveable Feast Catering.  My Les Dames career path pretty much followed Nancy’s – becoming both Chapter President and International President immediately after her.  She likes to point out, however, that even though she preceded me in both of these positions, she is the younger of the two Nancys which I suppose qualifies her for wunderkind status!  She was passionate about the goals of this organization and taught me much about how our leadership could help to achieve them.

Our cooking relationship intensified in 1996 when she moved into the same building that I was living in downtown Chicago.  Since we both liked to entertain and did a lot of it, we not only cooked together but also often attended one another’s dinner parties. I almost never left Nancy’s home without requesting a recipe of some dish she had just cooked for one of our dinners.  We also began traveling together – once to South American and several trips to Italy.  (Nancy’s recipe from an Italian trip we made together is  –Ribollita, which appears in an earlier blog  – Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”).

Nancy, Candace and I in Chianti

One especially memorable cooking session was a Thanksgiving meal we prepared together using the turkey recipe from our good friend Abby Mandel’s cookbook Celebrating the Midwestern Table.  The directions seemed complicated, but we were determined.  They began – Cut three 3-foot lengths of heavy-duty foil.   Working on a large flat surface, place the foil lengths side by side to make a wide sheet that will be pieced together – they continued.  Was this an origami art project we wondered?  Except using tin foil instead of paper.

Soon we decided that the countertop of my kitchen was not a large enough surface for this project, so we placed the roasting pan on the floor where Nancy began double folding the long edges and securing the seams while I stood over her continuing to read Abby’s instructions trying to make some sense out of what we were doing.  By the time we got to the actual placement of the turkey  – bringing the foil up over the sides of the turkey, making sure to leave airspace on the top and the sides making the tent airtight, I had joined Nancy on the floor where we were doubled over in laughter as we continued to struggle with our 22 pound bird.

Once cooked and out of the oven, we did have to admit that the meat was incredibly moist as promised, but not at all brown, making it impossible to make a dark, rich gravy.  Because Abby’s recipes (she was another of my cooking buddies) were legendary and pretty much infallible, we figured we must have missed something.  A step?  A fold in our tent?  We’ll never know for sure but both Nancy and I reverted back to the old traditional method of roasting a turkey at future Thanksgivings.  No more foil tents for us.   However, not a Thanksgiving goes by where we don’t have a good laugh remembering our “tin-foil-turkey-tent struggles”.

It was difficult to select a recipe from Nancy for this blog.  I have so many.  But I decided upon one that she made for a baby shower she gave my daughter Candace.  Many of the guests asked for the recipe afterwards, a sure indicator of a winning dish.  It is a take on the Piemonte dish called Vitello Tonnato – cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like tuna sauce.  This delicious version uses chicken instead of veal and because it is served cold, is an easy dish to make for a buffet.

© rob warner photography 2021

Cold Poached Chicken Breasts with Tuna Basil Sauce
(6 servings)

3 pounds whole skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 3)
2-3 cups chicken broth (or stock)
Salt and Pepper (if stock is not seasoned)

Sauce
6 ½ oz. can tuna packed in olive oil, drained well
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup plain yogurt
3 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoons drained bottled capers plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves, or to more to taste
lemon slices for garnish
6 fresh basil sprigs for garnish (optional)

20 Mixed brine-cured black olives – such as Niçoise and Kalamata – cut in half

Place the chicken breasts in a skillet large enough to hold them without layering. Pour enough stock over them to cover completely and bring to a simmer for 18 minutes, uncovered. Remove the skillet from the heat, and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 30 minutes. Do not bring to a boil.  Drain the chicken and let it stand until it is cool enough to handle. Separate the two sides of each breast, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

In a blender or food processor blend the tuna, mayonnaise, yogurt, anchovies, 1 tablespoons of capers, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste until the mixture smooth. Transfer to an airtight container, and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Cut the chicken breasts diagonally into ¼-inch slices and put each breast on a plate. Just before serving, stir the chopped basil into the sauce. Spoon some of the sauce over each breast and garnish the chicken with additional capers, the basil sprigs, lemon slices and sprinkle olives on top.

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Abby Mandel

Dames at Abby’s shower for Candace

Abby Mandel, cookbook author and Chicago Tribune “Weekend Cook” columnist and founder of the Green City Market in Chicago was a Chicago force to be reckoned with.  Abby, Nancy and I all came into Les Dames in that second charter group but it wasn’t until several years later than I became friendly with her.  Abby was thought of by many of us in Chicago as the “Martha Stewart of the Midwest”. Her parties were legendary, not only for her excellent food but also for her table settings. Many of them followed a theme like her “Bistro Evening” where typical bistro food was served in a casual yet elegant setting.  Her parties were also very clever like the wedding shower she gave for my daughter, Candace.  Her invitation in the form of a poem requested that each guest bring a recipe and a gift to match – like a pie plate with a pie recipe.  It made for an afternoon of delightful discussions about the origins of everyone’s recipes.

The main dish she served for this luncheon (recipe below) was from her cookbook”Celebrating the Midwestern Table”

 

© rob warner photography 2021

Abby Mandel’s Baked Salmon with Fresh Tomato & Capers

 

Tomato & Caper Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced (about ½ tablespoon)
3 large shallots, minced (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
6 large plum tomatoes, outer shells only, cut into ½ inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salmon
Six 5 to 6 ounce uniformly thick fresh fillets
1-tablespoon olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large basil leaves, cut into fine julienne for garnish

 

Put a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides) with foil.  Set aside

For the sauce, heat the oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the garlic and the shallots.  Cook until softened, about 4 minutes.  Add the wine and simmer 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, capers, sugar, salt & pepper.  Heat just until warmed through.  Stir in butter until melted.  Remove from the heat.  Adjust seasonings.  This sauce can be made several hours ahead and kept at room temperature.  Gently reheat before using it.

For the salmon, wash the fillets and dry them with paper towels. Place the fillets, skin side down, in a single layer on the prepared jelly roll pan. Rub the surface of the fillets with oil.  Season with salt and pepper.

Bake until the fish is sizzling and lightly browned around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes. To be sure they are cooked, use a small paring knife to cut through the thickest part.  Do not overcook.

To serve, use a metal spatula to transfer the fillets to a large serving platter or to individual plates. Spoon the warm sauce over them and garnish with the julienned basil.  Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled.  If serving chilled, refrigerate the fillets up to 3 hours with the sauce on them.

 

Abby in a local market in Provencé

I was fortunate to travel to France with Abby once, an experience that was especially memorable because of her strong connection to that country.  Not only did Abby speak beautiful French, but she was also familiar with its best restaurants having trained in many of them while she was writing her Cuisinart cookbooks.  We began in Paris, then moved on to Provence to visit my daughter Candace who was studying at the University of Provence in Aix.  A big part of our agenda was to survey the amazing farmer’s markets in Provence.  Just about every village has a weekly or bi-weekly market and it was truly a pleasure to accompany Abby as she checked out the amazing produce, gorgeous prepared foods and beautiful Provencal printed linens – always surrounded by the heavenly scent of lavender.  Even though we did much nibbling in each market we always found time to have a leisurely lunch in a nearby café, reviewing our market finds while savoring a glass of local Rosé.  Oh the life!

Abby claimed many of her ideas for Chicago’s Green City Market came from these markets.  Visiting them over the years she said deepened her commitment to supporting small farmers in the Chicago area and fired up her passion for educating the local community about why these farmers who were providing the community with healthy and sustainable food deserved our support.  Once again, it was thrilling to be with someone so knowledgeable and so committed – a trait I found in so many Dames members.

 

Leslee, Abby and I

Les Autres Dames

Leslee, Nancy and Abby were some of my earliest and closest Les Dames friends, but I have met so many smart, interesting, wonderful women though the organization that its almost impossible to tell all their stories.  In the early 1900’s I began attending the Les Dames International Conferences in the various chapter cities around the country opening up yet another path to culinary adventures and friendships.

International Board at a Napa meeting

Conferences in L.A., New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Palm Springs, Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, D.C. and others not only brought me in contact with chapter members from all over the country, but exposed us all to the culinary highlights of each location.   The Host Chapter always planned an amazing four-day event including tours, classes, tastings and incredible dining experiences.

In 1994 I became a member of the International Board as a Vice President.  At that time, the Board was comprised of President, Past President, 2 Vice Presidents, Secretary and Treasurer.  The Board held four meetings during the year, our last being the annual conference.  The other three meetings were usually held in cities that we hoped would ultimately form their own chapter and we always made a point of seeking out women in the community who might be the most likely candidates to become members.

 

Paula Lambert, Nancy Harris and I

Our days during these smaller meetings were filled with policy discussions and agenda plans for the upcoming conference.  But our evenings were reserved for exploration- checking out the newest or best bars, markets and restaurants of the city. Paula Lambert, American cheese maker and cookbook author from Dallas, served on my board.  With her deep connections all over the U.S., we left the planning of our evening activities up to her- guaranteeing that they would be of the highest quality.

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Some of my best Les Dames memories are of these smaller gatherings.  One in particular was the lunch meeting in Boston with Julia Child in her Cambridge kitchen (the very kitchen now housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.).  I pinched myself throughout the whole meeting.   Another was the delicious dinner we enjoyed at the famed Cakebread Napa Valley Winery with the Cakebread family sipping their fantastic wines throughout the dinner and hearing about their history.

 

Dames with Julia in her home at the Boston conference

As is always the case, smaller groups produce deeper relationships.  One of those deeper relationships was with Ann Yonkers.  We clicked immediately.   She was co-founder and co-director of Fresh Farm Markets in Washington D.C.  Dorene Centioli-McTigue who owned Pagliacci Pizza Company in Seattle Washington was another.  I keep in touch with both of them and make a point to see them as often as possible.  Another great by-product of getting to know these fellow international board members is the fact that when you travel to their city, you know it is simply a matter of a phone call to either make a date for lunch or ask advice on where and what to visit in their respective cities.

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In 1995 I had the honor of becoming President of Les Dames d’Escoffier International.  The conference during my term was held in my favorite city, New York.  At that time our conferences were not as expansive as they are today.  We had just 17 chapters. Today Les Dames has chapters in over 40 cities – five of which are international including Paris and London.  Although we continue to promote our original goals, in recent years Les Dames has added ambitious community service projects like the Green Tables Civic Agriculture and Gardening Initiative, which has been implemented in a variety of established garden-to-table organizations all over the country.  Grants, scholarships, mentoring and community service programs continue to be our hallmark.  If it wasn’t clear before it is now: women are now a force to be reckoned with!  Attending these conferences or keeping up with our impressive membership by reading our Quarterly – the newsletter written and edited by Cici Williamson of D.C  (author and recipe tester) –  always brought me back to the happiness and pride I felt in being a member of this illustrious professional organization.

After my term as President of International, I continued being active in the Chicago chapter, chairing various committees and eventually becoming President of the chapter for a second time.  One group that has provided me with a wealth of knowledge is the PPAC – the Past Presidents Advisory Committee.  We all have much in common after serving as president of this very prestigious and diverse group of women, all of whom have strong opinions about almost everything.  They are a very interesting group of women each with knowledge, skill and competence in their own particular area of the industry.

 

Past Presidents at the 20th Chapter Celebration

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Barbara Glunz and I

I can always call on Carol Haddix, former food editor of the Chicago Tribune, for help in writing or editing; Jeanne Lubeck, Suzanne Florek, Rita Gutekanst, Nancy Harris or Barbara Glunz, all owners (or former owners) of restaurants or catering establishments, for advice in all matter of things related to my business.  And Toria Emas, Private Club and Events Planner and Nancy Harris were experts in matters of policy and procedure. They along with Mary Hess, a recognized expert in food and nutrition, never fail to answer whatever questions I might have in these categories.  I continue to consult Nancy Harris on many other things.  She had been president or on the board of almost every culinary organization known to man so her perspective is always valuable.

In recent years it has become a custom for the current President to organize a PPAC luncheon.  Current President Portia Belloc Lowndes, caterer and events/conference planner, organized the last one.  Portia’s very calm and congenial demeanor set the tone of the luncheon – one of comradely and cooperation.   Since it is really up to the current president to decide how much help she wants or needs from the PPAC, our participation has varied over the years.  Portia made it clear she would most likely call on all of us for help in various areas.   She welcomed our perspective on things. And then came the pandemic!

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I met Linda Calafiore when she was a Chicago dame.  After she sold her incredibly successful company CHIC (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) to Cordon Bleu, and moved to Carmel, California, we have continued to stay in touch over the phone, during her visits to Chicago to see friends and family, traveling together and my visits to her charming home in California.  We share a love of many things, especially a passion for Italy and its ceramica.  Linda so loves Italy she even considered making it her home moving to Rome for a summer.   But after a few months, decided that visiting Italy was way better than living there.

 

Linda and I in Carmel

Her Carmel home is always a great respite from the bitter cold Chicago winters. Besides invigorating walks along the ocean, a highlight is having a meal cooked by her and served outside in her lush beautiful garden.   She is a most gracious and generous hostess.  During my most recent visit, Linda made a pasta dish I loved – and have since used in my restaurant.

 

Linda Calafiore’s Autumn Orecchiette
(Serves 5 – 6)

 

¾ pound orecchiette cooked al dente
2 ½ pound butternut squash – peeled cubed into ½ inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-teaspoon brown sugar
1 pound crumbled mild Italian sausage
5 – 6 cups Swiss chard, loosely chopped
¼ to 1/3 cup stock
Grated Parmesan
Sage

Toss cubed butternut squash with olive oil and brown sugar and place on a cookie sheet.  Roast in a 400-degree oven for approximately 25 – 30 minutes until tender and slightly browned.  Set aside

In a large skillet, brown the sausage.  Add the Swiss chard and sauté for 2 minutes.  Add the broth and mix well.

In the meantime cook the pasta until al dente.  Drain and mix into the sausage, Swiss chard.  Add the squash.  Mix all together until heated.  Serve with grated Parmesan.  Optional – top with fried sage.

 

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Linda’s point of view as a culinary school administrator has been valuable to me over the years.  As a no nonsense, straight-to-the-point kind of gal, I have found her advice both intelligent and practical.  It is always interesting to hear other people’s take on my business.  Sometimes I have even hired a Dames member as a consultant to my stores and restaurants.  Dana Benigno – recipe developer and marketing consultant – and I had become friends as a result of our board connection.  Her delightful, spirited voice was always ripe with new and fresh ideas and I loved her for that.  During one of our lunches at Convito, she began making observations and comments about both the café and market – interesting ideas about everything from the color of the bowls we used in our prepared food cases to our marketing focus both in print and social media.  I ended up hiring her.   “Convito is so comfortable”, she observed once.  “How about using the phrase “Come Home to Comfort. Come home to Convito” in your marketing push?  We did, and we still use that phrase frequently.  Not only did I value many of Dana’s suggestions, but more than anything it was just damn fun working with her.  Lots of laughter!

Dana Benigno

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Good friend Joan Reardon and Jill Van Cleave were also two relationships that came as a result of board connections.  For years the three of us met for a February dinner to celebrate our February birthdays.  Joan is a well-respected author of four culinary books and Jill was a prolific cookbook author and food industry consultant.

I got to know Jill even better when she became the Program Chairman on my board.   She was – in my opinion – the best Program Chairman the organization had ever had.  In addition to her own culinary career, she was also married to one of America’s foremost food and wine writers, Bill Rice.  Constantly wined and dined as the “hot culinary couple” in Chicago and throughout America, Jill came to the position of Program Chairman with a wealth of experience and incredible credentials.  Her programs ranged from stimulating lectures like “Sustainable Seafood” held at the Shedd Aquarium to delicious and educational lunches and dinners like The Green City Market lunch at North Pond and the dinner at Vichyssoise where chef Bernard Cretier cooked up dishes in celebration of Julia Child’s recent passing. Her Beer and Cheese tasting deviated from the more classic cheese pairing of wine and actually surprised many of us how interesting that combination could be.  Then she really surprised us all when she decided to end her term on a decadent note – a private event held at Saks Fifth Avenue with a Dames Fashion Show and personal make-up sessions.   “Every program doesn’t have to be heavy”, said Jill laughingly.

After Bill passed on in 2016, a group of Les Dames friends gathered around a then ailing Jill as a “cheer-her-up” dinner group taking her bi-monthly to various restaurants all around the Chicago area.  The group included, Barbara Glunz, owner of the House of Glunz, Chicago’s oldest and finest wine & spirits shop; Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla, a prestigious purveyor of fine foods and cookbook author Karen Leven.  Over the expanse of the 3 years we spent dining together, Barbara and Sofia expanded my wine knowledge exponentially.  Even though I have been involved with Convito’s wine market since we opened – tasting the wines, visiting wineries and ordering our selections – my knowledge of wine outside of Italy was lacking.   Sofia loved to begin our evenings with a glass of her favorite Champagne, Pol Roger, which she generously brought along to share with us.  It became an integral part of our “cheer-her-up” dinners where ironically the cheeriest of all of us was, Jill.  Her take on life was simply inspirational.  The four of us have continued seeing one another even after Jill passed on in 2018.

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Although brief, my relationship with Linda Avery came about also from a board connection.  I first got to know her when she served as Communications Chairman on my board and then by working with her on two different fundraisers.   When she became a co-chair on the fundraiser “Fashion Plates” during my second term as president, it became evident why this totally reliable, highly organized and smart-as-a-whip person was such a sought-after member for any committee.

Linda Avery

Linda came to the food community later in life.  She began in the financial department at Leo Burnett Advertising Agency eventually rising to the level of senior vice president.  Linda claims we actually met when I lived in London and she came with the Chicago financial team to meet with my then husband Bob.  I don’t remember that dinner, probably because those events were usually focused on business and my role of “wife” was primarily one of just being charming and accommodating.  I do remember, however, that hiding my extreme boredom was always way more difficult than being charming and accommodating.

By the time she joined Les Dames, Linda had left Leo Burnett and came to us as a James Beard award-winning food editor for her work on Leite’s Culinaria, a celebrated cooking and food blog.  Her recipe writing was impeccable.  Shortly after we met, we would frequently share meals together sometimes joined by either Meme Hopmayer or Jen Lamplough cookbook author and food educator.  All of us appreciated Linda’s wicked sense of humor and insightful observations.  Because she was a part of the cookbook review committee for both the IACP (International Association of Cooking Professionals) awards as well as the James Beard awards, she was on top of all the latest food trends and would share that knowledge with us over dinner.

Linda and I took several long weekend trips together over the course of three summers: first to Madison, Wisconsin to explore its famous farmer’s market coming home with sacks full of corn and tomatoes; then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to enjoy its lakefront museum and German restaurants this time purchasing an assortment of Wisconsin cheeses and for me, some good old Wisconsin brats; and finally to Saugatuck, Michigan to amble through its quaint little shops bringing home every kind of delicious Michigan blueberry product imaginable including syrup, jam and even soap.  We actually stayed in cookbook author Julie Rosso charming Wickwood Inn.  Sadly, the next sojourn we planned to New York City was cancelled.  Linda’s untimely and early death in the fall of 2016 was unexpected and devastating to us all.

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Swank group (L to R) Co-Chair Meme Hopmayer, Budget Chair Linda Avery, President Jen Lamplough and Co-cChair Nancy Brussat

Meme Hopmayer and I became close friends after working on several committees together.  We collaborated on many a Les Dames program and fundraiser over the years but our most fun collaboration was the fundraiser we co-chaired called “Swank-a-licious”.  This crazy supper-club themed dinner and auction was made complete with a band and vocals led by the husband of one of our past presidents (Dave Gutekanst) accompanied at times by the Broadway-quality voice of our upcoming president, Julie Chernoff.

Before President Jen Lamplough asked us to chair this fundraiser, Meme and I thought our Les Dames chairmanships were over.  We had put in many, many hours over the years!  But Jen had so much on her plate we didn’t have the heart to say no. She was after all one of our favorite young, up-and-coming members.  And having worked together on many previous events, Meme and I had a certain rhythm to our partnership.  I will never forget our first meeting after we accepted this co-chairmanship.  My goal was to make a list of all those we wanted to chair our sub- committees: our dream team!  “Ok”, I said after we made the list, “let’s divide up the names and call them all by the end of the week”.  “No”, said Meme “Let’s call right now!”  With that she pulled out her cell phone and proceeded to call everyone on our list.  I was astounded.  Not only did we reach every single person, but every one of them said yes, most importantly our budget and event coordinator, Linda Avery.   Wow!  We had our Dream Team just like that!  I was immediately reminded of why I liked working with Meme so much.

Swankaliscious dinner party auction: Meme’s condo, Convito food, Barbara Glunz wine and Malika Ameen -famed pastry chef – desserts

 

Like so many Dames, Meme’s food credentials were impressive.  At one time she and her husband Gary owned Original American Scones, a bakery located in downtown Chicago, which in addition to their store, serviced the many Chicago Starbucks locations.   They also consulted with several Chicago markets and restaurants including the Corner Bakery and Fox & Obel, a Chicago food and wine market.  Meme’s specialty is baking and it was always on spectacular display at her famous Ultimate Cookie Exchange, an annual event where guests are invited to come up with a “truly delicious and different cookies” and bring 3-dozen of them (including a recipe) to her much-anticipated Sunday holiday lunch.  The guest list always included illustrious Chicago pastry chefs, so it could be rather intimidating for those of us who consider ourselves cooks, not bakers.  But nonetheless, I came every year with my humble offering and looked forward to sampling some of the best cookies I have ever tasted.

 

Meme Hopmayer Cookie Party

Meme’s Biscotti
(Yield: 24-30)

 

¼ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange rind
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup dried currants (or cranberries)
1-¼ cups salted pistachios
1 egg white mixed with a bit of water
½ cup sanding sugar

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheets with parchment paper

With an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar, zest and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and gradually beat into butter mixture.  Beat until combined well.  Stir in remaining ingredients.  Chill dough 30 minutes until it no longer feels sticky.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and halve.  Form each piece into a flattish log about 12 inches long by 2 inches wide.  Brush log with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Arrange logs about 3 inches apart on baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Bake in the middle of oven for about 30 minutes until pale golden brown.  Cool logs on baking sheet on a rack for about 5 – 10 minutes.

Transfer logs to cutting board and cut crosswise on a diagonal into 1 inch thick slices and arrange cut sides down on baking sheet.  Lower oven to 200 degrees and bake biscotti until dried and golden.

Transfer biscotti to racks and cool completely.

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Ann, Dorene, Linda and I in Tuscany

Many of us who established friendships through our international connections have gotten together over the years.  I have visited Ann Yonkers and her renaissance-man husband Charlie at their Chesapeake Bay home many times.  Their farm and grounds overlooking the Bay are incredible, as is their new kitchen – a heavenly place where cooking and comradery is ever-present.

 

Ann and Charlie were a part of the most memorable communal cooking session that  I described in a previous blog (Tuscany I “My Country Experience”) where Linda Calafiore and I visited Dorene Centioli-McTigue and her wine savvy husband Terry at their beautiful villa just outside of Cortona, Tuscany where they lived for two years.  Ann and Charlie were already there when we arrived.  The meal we cooked together as a group was divine – the results not surprising given this group of food and wine lovers endowed with considerable cooking skills.  The meal is described in (blog Tuscany).

 

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Some things come along at just the right moment and becoming a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier was important to me on so many levels.  Working alongside these amazing women was always inspirational whether our goal was to raise funds for culinary scholarships or local food banks, to plan programs for our membership, or to simply work toward achieving the goals of this organization: the promotion, support and development of women in the food and wine industry.

Les Dames has given me the opportunity to develop professional relationships that would become invaluable to my business, introduced me to the food and wine of countless American cities, and provided me with access to a group of women who have been my advisors, my teachers, my supporters and my friends.  The organization is like no other I have ever belonged to. LDEI has given me – and woman like me – a place where we can find support, stimulation and recognition for our achievements in a profession that was not so long ago the exclusive territory of our male counterparts.  And though I have found amazing friendships and inspiring professional collaborations outside the universe of the Dames who I have come to love and respect, nothing compares to being able to learn from, mentor and honor other women in whom I recognize both my past and future self.  Whether they are a cooking collaborator, a dining partner or travel buddy, their impact on my life has been profound.  Even those who have passed on remain with me in spirit.  Their friendship and counsel will always be firmly engrained in my very existence.

Needless to say, my culinary journey would not be nearly as rich had I not been invited to be a part of this marvelous organization.  So once again I toast my long-departed best-friend and partner-in-crime Leslee Reis.  Thanks Leslee, you would be so proud to see what this marvelous organization has become.  And I will always be proud to be a small piece of its history.

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My Journey into the Kitchen “My Three Mentors”

Sautéing, braising and searing are just a few of the culinary skills I accumulated on the road to becoming a cook.   And while there are some moments in my culinary education where I can identify the precise moment I learned a particular technique, others came to me over time, by reading  cookbooks, observing and assisting cooks I met all over the world and – perhaps most important of all – making mistakes and corrections in my own kitchen.  Much of what I know was developed by simple experimentation; like gradually understanding that to make French Fries the way I liked them – with a slight crispness and a light browning – I needed the frying oil to be intensely hot and the potatoes dried of all excess moisture.  No cookbook was ever able to guide me to make fries exactly the way I liked them.  But time, experience and patience did.

The more I cooked, the more I became aware of the importance and meaning of those skills.  Sautéing cooks food quickly and keeps flavors vivid.  Braising – essentially low and slow cooking – is used to break down the connective tissue of tougher meats to render them fall-off-the-bone tender.  And searing – cooking on an extremely hot surface, causes what is referred to as the Maillard reaction which creates a golden crust on food that looks, smells and tastes wonderful.

Once skills like those are properly executed, one doesn’t forget the succulent juiciness of that perfectly sautéed chicken breast or the incredibly delicious and flavorful beef stew that slowly braised for two plus hours on your stovetop.

Three women – all incredible cooks – introduced me to many of those techniques, but what most stands out in my mind when I think of their influence on my culinary journey is the role they played in my understanding and appreciation of Italian cuisine.  Mary Barocci, my once-mother-in-law, introduced me to authentic Italian cooking.  Wanda Bottino, the Milanese mother of my original business partner, showed me its great regional diversity.  And Violet Caldarelli in her role as Convito’s first chef, taught me how to take that culinary knowledge and translate it to the countless dishes we still sell to this day.  Their skills, their love of food and their culinary knowledge provided me with a dream education, one you couldn’t get from a TV cooking show or a classroom.  It was up close and personal, intense and always hands-on.  Cooking alongside them and watching their command of the kitchen was not only educational, but also incredibly inspiring.

 

 

 

Mary Barocci

It was in Mary Barocci’s kitchen that I first came face to face with true Italian cuisine.  I had been dating her son, Bob for six months before we decided to take a break from our studies at the University of Wisconsin and visit his mom and dad at his home in Cudahy to experience some good home cooking.  It didn’t take long to recognize that Mary’s Italian dishes were in a whole different league than the Italian food I had tasted before I met her.  From my first taste of her spaghetti sauce I knew that her cooking elevated that dish to something I had not experienced before.  Even though I continued to thoroughly enjoy every Italian meal that Mary cooked – especially when they introduced to new tastes like polenta and potato gnocchi – it wasn’t until many years later when I became responsible for cooking meals for my own family that I began to fully appreciate her talent and to recognize that her culinary skills were prodigious.

There was always something extra in each dish Mary prepared.  She had her own unique touch that both elevated a dish and also gave it her signature.  I vividly remember watching her make a simple cucumber salad.   Hers was crunchier and more “cucumbery” than others I had tasted.  Her secret I observed, was to slice the cucumbers very thinly, salt them heavily and then leave them soaking for an hour or so to bring out the excess water (cucumbers consist of 95% water).  The process is called sweating.  Later she would “wring out” the excess moisture like one would with a damp washcloth – and then carefully separating each of the slices, add thin slivers of onion and toss the mixture with oil and cider vinegar – heavy on the vinegar!  I make this salad frequently and whenever I “wring out” my cucumber slices…I think of her.

The direction Mary’s life took was deeply impacted by the skills she developed in the kitchen at a young age.  I learned about her childhood from her daughter Katherine, the oldest of Mary’s three children and the self-appointed family historian.  Since Mary herself rarely spoke of her childhood, Katherine learned most of her mother’s history from piecing together tidbits of information gleaned over many years listening to her aunt and uncles.

 

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Mary was born in Michigan to first-generation Croatian parents.  She spent most of her youth in Bessemer, a small mining town in the upper peninsula of Michigan where her father worked in some of the deepest mines in the United States.  As in most mining communities, life was hardscrabble and fraught with danger and fear and everyone in the family had to contribute to the running of the household.  Mary, the oldest of four, was responsible for many chores at a very early age and one of those was cooking for the family.  Because Bessemer contained such a diverse collection of ethnic influences, she not only learned to cook her family’s Croatian dishes but also those from other miners’ home countries like England, Ireland and Italy.

Not long after her sixteenth birthday when her siblings were old enough to contribute to running the house, Mary was sent to work as a maid for a wealthy family in St Louis.  After a few years there, she moved to Cleveland where she became the nanny for another wealthy family.   Eventually, Mary returned to Bessemer and married an Italian man, Louis Barocci, whom she had met some years before.

Louis became a teacher, eventually settling his family in Cudahy, a suburb of Milwaukee where Mary became a mother of three and an extremely skilled homemaker.  Family roots – in combination with Mary’s early employment and the fact that she had married into an Italian family – greatly influenced Mary’s evolution both as a homemaker and in the kitchen.  Certainly, the impact of her early years of living and working in the homes of highly educated and wealthy families surrounded by beautiful things had an impact on her taste level.  Because a teacher’s salary could not buy many of the high-quality items she had been exposed to, Mary became very adept at watching for sales.  Her son Tom recalls growing up with many lovely things – and especially remembers the perfect table his mother set every Sunday all complete with beautifully folded white linen napkins, an elegant lace tablecloth and quality china and glassware all placed in their proper positions.  “She knew all about those things,” Tom told me.  “And all about proper etiquette, another set of facts she most likely learned during her days serving as a maid and a nanny.  I grew up with my own private Emily Post,”

Mary’s Italian recipe file expanded greatly after her marriage to Louis.  His family was believed to have emigrated from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna specifically from around the town of Parma, arguably the greatest of Italy’s food regions and home to world famous food products like prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano.  I not only became familiar with those products under Mary’s tutelage, but also learned to cook a whole myriad of Italian dishes like rich tomato and mushroom Chicken Cacciatore, succulent potato gnocchi drenched in browned butter, plum dumplings in a yummy brown sugar sauce, and creamy polenta to name just a few.

 

 

As much as Mary is responsible for all my first fine Italian cooking experiences, she also exposed me to other European cuisines.  One of the very first lunches I had at her house was neither Italian nor Croatian, but a delicious little hand-held pie stuffed with meat, potatoes, onions and carrots from Cornwall, England.  It was called a pasty and was an all-in-one meal brought into the depths of the mines by immigrant laborers across the Midwest.  Easy to pack in their lunchbox and even easier to eat, it provided sustenance for the grueling days spent in the dark, damp mines of Bessemer.  How this traditional English dish cross-pollinated into Italian and Croation-American culture is anyone’s guess.  But I suppose that is precisely what makes this country so culturally fascinating.

Croatian dishes were, of course, her specialty.  Once I married her son and became more interested in cooking, I would often follow Mary around her kitchen writing down recipes of the dishes she was preparing for dinner that evening.  I was eventually invited to help stir the polenta, which in retrospect was a little like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting invitation.  The labor intensive nature of this Italian/Croatian dish begins by slowly adding cornmeal to boiling water, then stirring it constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent it from becoming lumpy and to make sure it was perfectly creamy and not bitter.  It is much easier when that the stirring is shared with someone (which is where I came into the picture), since producing “perfect polenta” often takes an hour or more.  Because I love polenta so much it was a tradition I continued in my own family, waiting for the kids to come home from school to help me in the stirring process.

Croatia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, so many Croatian dishes like polenta, resemble the dishes of the countries that were originally a part of that empire.  Chicken Paprikash, for instance, is a dish usually associated with Hungary.  Mary served hers with spaetzle smothered in a to-die-for creamy gravy.  I still cook it for special occasions, as does my son who prepares it annually for each of his family members’ birthday dinners.  I once made it for a group of friends that included food columnist Abby Mandel and she loved it so much she subsequently published it her Weekend Cook column in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks later.

Mary’s authority in the kitchen was unquestioned.  She knew how to cook almost anything including many foods I had never heard of before, let alone tasted.  Things like pickled pigs feet, tongue, and head cheese (a lunch meat made from the head of a calf or pig often set in aspic) were commonplace in her kichen.  I was impressed that she knew what these “strange” items were and even more impressed that she knew how to cook them, but it wasn’t until later that I understood the source of her knowledge.  Growing up in rural Michigan, Mary’s family would buy just one pig, one cow and one sheep every year.  Throughout the warm seasons they would care for those animals until winter came when they would butcher them to use as sustenance through the cold winter months.  As a result, Mary understood how to best utilize every part of each animal – the best way to fry kidneys, the best way to slowly simmer tongue, the best way to quickly sauté liver – always elevating each into something delicious.

Canning was also a big part of her upbringing.  The cellar – sometimes called the root cellar or the fruit cellar – was a structure (usually underground or partially underground) used for storage of many different foods.  Mary, like many Americans back in the early part of the century, canned all sorts of fruits and vegetables in the late summer and early fall in preparation for a long winter.  Her family also canned, jarred or pickled more “exotic” items.  Her youngest son Tom clearly remembers opening a jar of pickled pigs feet and sucking the delicious, chewy meat off the knuckles.  “It didn’t seem strange to me at all.  It was a part of my upbringing.” However, he does remember an animal part he really didn’t like and recalls coming home from school to the smell of kidneys being cooked for his dinner. “I could identify that smell a block away and immediately began to invent a “stomach-ache story” so I could go directly to my room and skip the evening meal.”

When I met Mary she was still utilizing many of those animal parts (often referred to as offal – internal organs) in her everyday cooking. Pig snout went into pots of beans or soups to give the dish more flavor and a richer body.  Ham hocks were used in many dishes especially enhancing the flavor of her pea soup or pork and bean casserole.  I became familiar with many of them and began to appreciate their function.  However, some of the more “exotic” organs and animal parts were never served to me, existing simply as family lore.  Deep-fried chicken feet or scrambled eggs with brains – her husband’s favorite breakfast – were cooked only for the immediate family..  I can’t say I felt the least slighted.

Mary and I in her Cudahy, WI home

Mary was a very intelligent woman who read prodigiously, was very well spoken and kept up on all the happenings of the world.  She was especially proud of her children’s academic accomplishments: Katherine graduated from Marquette and became a teacher; Bob graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin and went on to Harvard Business School; and Tom received a BS, MS and a PhD from the U of Wisconsin and became an associate professor in the Economics Department and Business School at MIT. And her husband was a high school teacher.  So I just assumed that she, like the rest of her family, had gone to college.  When I learned that her education had to be cut short at age sixteen, I was quite surprised.  For someone who placed such a premium on education, that had to be very difficult.

It would have been so interesting hearing about those early days from Mary herself.  The idea of a young poor girl from a small mining community moving to the “big city” and being immersed in a completely foreign world is the stuff of great American literature. What we did know about Mary – what was perfectly clear – was that she was a great cook and I – like her three children – was the lucky recipient of that talent.  Each time I cook one of her recipes I think back to all that I learned in Mary’s kitchen.

Mary’s Spaghetti and Meatballs – the first Italian meal I had at the Barocci home –  is still delicious. It is a vibrant and savory tomato sauce with a hint of cinnamon, which comes from its addition to the meatballs that simmer in the sauce for an hour or more.  The use of cinnamon is typical of the Emilia-Romagna region.  Its sweetness serves to bring savory flavors alive and counterbalances the acidity of the tomatoes.  It is one of many recipes that have been passed on to her grandchildren and will continue to be passed on to her great grandchildren.  They are her legacy.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Mary Barocci’s “Italian Spaghetti”
(aka Spaghetti & Meatballs)
Serves 4

 

Meatballs
1-pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
1/3-cup breadcrumbs
1 small onion finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 small egg, slightly beaten
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons oil

Mix together the beef, pork, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, egg, cinnamon, salt & pepper.  Form into meatballs about the size of walnuts.  (Will make about 20) In a skillet heat the oil over medium-high heat and fry the meatballs in two batches until browned.  You may need to use more oil.  Set the meatballs aside

In the meantime make the tomato sauce

Tomato Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2/3 cup finely chopped carrots
2/3 cup finely chopped celery
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (28-ounce) can whole Italian Plum Tomatoes, including the juice – broken up into pieces
salt & pepper to taste

In a Dutch Oven sauté the onions, carrots and celery over medium heat until soft – approximately 5 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté for another minute. Add salt and pepper.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a low simmer.  Cook uncovered for 15 minutes.  Pour the sauce into a food mill and process.  Pour the smooth sauce back into the Dutch Oven, add the meatball and simmer covered for about 10 minutes.

Pasta
1 pound spaghetti cooked al dente
grated Parmesan cheese

Combine and sauce and meatballs with the cooked pasta and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Note:  I like to add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to each serving before I sprinkle on the cheese.

 

For more than a decade as I raised my young children in the Chicago suburbs, Mary’s version of Italian became my own.  But it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after I first met her that my Italian culinary education exploded when I met Wanda Bottino, the mother of Paolo Volpara, my then-husband’s new business associate.  Bob and Paolo worked for the same American advertising agency, Leo Burnett; Bob as managing director of London and Paolo of Milan.  The three of us immediately clicked and began spending lots of time together both in Italy and in England.  Many Italian meals and much discussion later, it was decided that once I moved back to the states, I would open an Italian food and wine business with Paolo as my partner. Even though we weren’t sure what form it would take, we knew that in order for me to be effective in promoting Italy and its wine and food, I needed to begin a crash course immediately.

 

 

 

Wanda Bottino

Enter Wanda (pronounced “Vonda”), Paolo’s mother and my soon-to-be-teacher and mentor who would introduce me to the incredible depth and diversity of Italian regional cooking.  From 1979 to 1986 I began one of the most intense learning periods of my life, traveling frequently to Milan where both Paolo and Wanda lived, cooking with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week and traveling to different regions with Paolo on the weekends.

Wanda’s self-determined mission was to expose me to the myriad differences in the cooking of Italy’s 20 regions.  For this assignment she was well qualified.  She, like Mary Barocci, was a superb home cook.  That was common enough in Italy, but Wanda’s depth of regional experience was what set her apart and made her special.  Back then, most Italian home cooks were proficient in the recipes of their region but not necessarily beyond.  Wanda had the advantage of actually living in many of Italy’s 20 different regions.  In her youth, the family moved with her engineer father to the city of his latest assignment and then as a married woman, to whatever base her military husband was assigned.  However, home base was always the region in which Wanda was born – Piemonte, the land of wine and tartufi (truffles) and neighboring Liguria, the coastal region just 60 kilometers away where fish, pesto and focaccia were ubiquitous.  To Wanda these were the two regions whose cuisine had the most influence on her – the regions she would return to either to spend a vacation on the Ligurian seaside or to visit family in hills of Piemonte.

Her son Paolo remembers happily growing up in the delicious world of Wanda’s cooking.  Enjoying flavors from all over Italy was very much a part of his upbringing.  On Sundays he recalls the smell of the kraphen she baked.  Although its origins are Austrian, many Italian regions like Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and the Veneto (areas once subject to Austrian rule) featured this heavenly sweet pastry filled with cream and covered with sugar. He also fondly recalls autumn evenings when she served farinata, essentially a large chickpea pancake, for dinner.  Farinata originated in Liguria in the middle ages and became a typical food of that area.  To Paolo it was a kind of earthy, satisfying comfort food.  Also comforting was the Tuscan castagnaccio (a dense, thick chestnut crepe/cake) that she liked to serve on a cold winter’s night.  When eaten warm it was chewy and moist with almost a meaty quality and a hint of smoke from the pinenuts.  Her repertoire of recipes was so vast he can’t begin to remember them all.

When we first met, Wanda spoke no English and I no Italian.  That fact didn’t seem to matter to her at all, which I was to quickly learn the very first evening I spent with her.  Paolo thought it would be a good idea for us to meet socially before we began our intense cooking sessions, so he arranged a meeting with a wine producer friend of Wanda’s in Ovada, Piemonte some 100 kilometers from Milan.  The plan was for the three of us to tour the vineyards and then have dinner in one of Wanda’s favorite Piemontese restaurants.

That night would foreshadow what our relationship would become – invariably intense, frequently frenetic and always great fun.  She peppered me with questions about my planned business, my upbringing and my personal life all the way from Milan to Ovada.  The interrogation continued during cocktails with the winemaker, through dinner and all the way back to Milan.  At first Paolo translated, but the pace of her inquisition was so fast that he eventually had to give up.  She was relentless.  I eventually came to understand that in Wanda’s mind if she spoke loud enough and used enough exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions then any non-Italian speakers would eventually have to comprehend what she was getting at.  I have no idea if I answered her questions or she understood my answers, but I certainly spent a lot of time talking that night.

 

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By the time we began our cooking sessions in her tiny Milanese kitchen I had taken several Berlitz classes and had mastered just enough food and cooking terminology to keep up with her.  I was also beginning to understand that if I said “capisco” (I understand in English) or “si” (yes) after her long and sometimes confusing explanations of what she was about to cook, that she would move on to another subject – even though frequently I didn’t have a clue as to what she was saying!  But most of the time I at least understood the general idea.  Never was I more comfortable speaking Italian than with Wanda.  No matter how I struggled, she made me feel like a linguistic genius for simply trying.  “Brava!  Brava!” she would say.

Wanda was a little fireball, a woman of such energy and personality it was often hard to keep up with her, especially in her kitchen – chopping, stirring, pureeing –  there were all done with intensity and great flourish.   Very dramatic she was – a little like an opera diva.  Wanda was an instinctual cook, an experimental one who did not like to follow a recipe. In her mind, recipes took away her creativity.  But I did eventually convince her that recipes were essential for her newest protege.  How would I be able to teach our chefs and share these dishes through our Capitolo publications without a recipe?   Eventually she got used to me following her around her little kitchen with my set of measuring cups and a little stopwatch – always hanging over her shoulder furiously recording every measurement and every move she made.  That way I could later write up accurate measurements and clear cooking instructions for the dishes we had cooked that day.

Once she became more confident in my cooking skills, she finally allowed me to act as her sous chef.  But in Wanda’s kitchen, a good sous chef is responsible for the acquisition of the days fresh ingredients, so it became our habit that after we finished our morning cooking sessions we would spend the afternoons visiting salumerias (delicatessens), pasticcerias (pastry shops), drogherias (grocery stores), panificios (bakeries) and macellerias (butcher shops) where she introduced me to the owners or managers and requested samples of the myriad of cheeses, salamis and assorted delicacies for me to taste.  She especially loved pointing out all the amazing food displays in all of these stores, which in her opinion were the best in the world.  My favorites were the Peck stores which are considered the temple of Italian gastronomy by many chefs and restauranteurs in Italy.  Pecks are landmark shops in Milan where cheeses, prepared foods, wines and all kind of deli items are magnificently displayed in sparkling cases, on tables and in windows throughout their deliciously elegant stores.  And more than any other place, Peck was a direct inspiration for me in envisioning my own business.

 

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Once Convito opened its doors, I continued working with Wanda in Milan but she also came to visit Convito on at least four or five different occasions.  Her first visit was for our September 1980 opening and it was a gala, crowded affair.  We even put up a tent in the parking lot where we served many items that Wanda and I had cooked that day.  As usual, she managed to charm all of the guests while not speaking a word of English.  She was not the least bit shy or worried that she was in a country that did not speak her language.  To her, Italian was the mother tongue, be it in Milan or Chicago.

During those visits we also cooked in my Glencoe kitchen, testing dishes we would feature in Convito’s market – salads like our famous Rigatoni Noci, a pasta salad she had once tasted in Rome and prepared it from memory.   It remains one of our most popular salads to this day.  Like Mary Barocci, Wanda also had her “tricks” – enriching skills like drizzling a fine extra virgin olive oil on a Tuscan bean soup elevating its flavor and giving it that piquant, peppery Tuscan zip.

During her time in the U.S. we came up with many new ideas together, but one area we focused on in particular were the sauce recipes.  Today Convito offers 21 different sauces for sale and almost all of them originated with Wanda and I cooking together.  We first tested recipes for the classics – Bolognese, Pomodoro e Basilico and Sugo di Vongole – but soon began inventing sauces with made-up names like Spinacciola; an intensely flavorful Gorgonzola and spinach sauce (Milano II “Cooking with Wanda).   One sauce she developed during a trip to Chicago was a mushroom sauce – Boscaiola (woodsman-style sauce), a delicious combination of mushrooms and vegetables with prosciutto adding a savory element.  All of her sauces – even if invented, were based on her intuitive connection with the Italian palate.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Boscaiola
Hearty Mushroom Sauce
(serves 4-6 as a sauce for pasta)

 

½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup finely diced onions
¾ cup finely diced carrots
¾ cup finely diced celery
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
¼ cup finely diced parsley
1 pound mushrooms roughly chopped (I use a combination of white, cremini and shitake mushrooms, but other varieties will work)
1 cup diced prosciutto
½ cup red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup cream

Soak dried porcini mushrooms in water.  When soft, remove mushrooms from water, squeeze dry and finely dice.  Reserve ½ cup of porcini water strained well to remove sand.  Set aside

Clean and finely chop fresh mushrooms.  Don’t make too fine or they will be watery.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil.  Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic & parsley.  Saute over medium-high heat for approximately 5 minutes until vegetables are soft.  Add mushrooms and continue sautéing until most of the moisture from the mushrooms has evaporated.

Add prosciutto and stir into mixture.

Add diced porcini and mix well.  Add wine and turn heat to high.  Saute for approximately 4 minutes until wine has reduced somewhat.

Add tomato pasta and ½ cup of porcini juice.  Lower heat to medium and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add cream, mix well and cook for another 3-5 minutes.

 

Wanda’s cooking class at the original Convito

Wanda’s visits also usually included a series of cooking classes where she managed to charm pretty much everyone in the room.  These classes called “Cooking with Wanda” quickly became wildly popular.  She was a natural born instructor – knowledgeable, fearless and exuberant – and her classrooms were not only instructive, but they were also alive with laughter.  Incidents like a smoking sauté pan setting off the fire alarm or an out-of-control sneezing spell from breathing in a cloud of flour during her pasta making demonstration were all part of the experience.  That was Wanda and nothing fazed her, and nothing embarrassed her. She was our Italian Julia Child.    “Non importante”, Wanda would say when something would go awry and she was always right.  It was the transfer of culinary knowledge, expression of passion for the process and the enjoyment of being with like-minded people that made Wanda an infectious and effective instructor.

My time with Wanda was intense.  Looking back, I can’t imagine a better, more fun, more interesting culinary education.  Her tiny kitchen became my own private -albeit somewhat unorthodox – culinary institute at a critical moment in my education when my learning was at its peak, when my business began and when I became immersed in all things Italian.  And she was at the center of it all.

 

 

 

Violet Calderelli

When Convito Italiano opened in 1980 the most popular items in our brand-new store were those that we prepared fresh on premises.  Every day we filled the deli case and freezer to overflowing with freshly made salads and pasta sauces that would sell out by the time we closed.  With nothing but an outdated four-burner electric cooktop crammed behind our deli case, Convito’s “chefs” (I being the main one) cooked non-stop to keep up with the demand for this wildly popular and ever growing section of our store.  To most Americans in the early 1980’s “take-away” food brought to mind a bucket of fried chicken, a pepperoni pizza or maybe a mayonnaise-soaked potato salad purchased at the local supermarket.  The idea of sophisticated prepared foods was new and exciting to customers and they responded with enthusiasm.  But our bare-bones staff didn’t include anyone to help me prepare all the new recipes I had learned over the past few years, so it quickly became clear that I needed a full time cook.

I immediately sought the advice of my close friend and advisor, Leslee Reis (founder of the iconic Café Provencal) and she introduced me to Violet Caldarelli.  Violet was Leslee’s sous chef from the catering business Leslee ran before she opened her restaurant  Not only was Violet an excellent cook, but she was also an incredibly hard worker and someone who could easily adapt to adverse conditions, so having to cook in Convito’s non-kitchen was an easy fit for her.  Four months after we opened Convito’s doors, Violet Caldarelli came through them and stayed with us for the next 25 years, deeply impacting the quality of our food as well as all aspects of our customer service.  Her work ethic was incredible and became Convito’s gold standard.

 

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Violet Angus came from a hard-working family with a strong food culture which made her a perfect fit for Convito.  Born in Milwaukee to Greek immigrants – her father was from Athens and her mother from Sparta – Violet eventually married another first generation American, Dave Calderelli whose parents were from the Abruzzo region in southern-central Italy stretching from the heart of the Apennines mountains to the Adriatic Sea.  Both families valued hard work and resourcefulness and those ideas were carried forward by Violet and her husband Dave.

So was the entrepreneurial spirit so typical of many immigrants.  In 1952 Violet and Dave opened a school supply store close to Senn High school in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  In addition to pencils and notebooks, their store featured a 25-foot marble soda fountain complete with Dad’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer on tap as well as other sodas, milkshakes and ice cream treats.  In the morning students would come in for donuts and sweet rolls and for lunch Violet cooked up hamburgers, Vienna Hot Dogs, corned beef and other special sandwiches.  She managed all this with only a small grill, a steam table, a refrigerator and a stove.  Perfect training for Convito!

Violet was nothing if not hard-working and resourceful.  After she ran her school store for over a decade, she became a Real Estate agent then worked part time for Leslee Reis’ catering business and finally a 25-year stint at Convito. At the same time, she raised her son David and supported him through his many years of an Otolaryngology (ear, nose & throat) study.  Eventually he was named the head of head and neck Surgery at Rush University Medical Center as well as becoming a Professor in the Medical school there from 1975 to 2012.  Violet was exceptionally proud of her son and kept us up to date on his myriad accomplishments.  He is still considered a member of Convito’s extended family to this day.

Violet in Convito’s kitchen with chef Robert Chavis

One of Violet’s enduring contributions to Convito is something I never would have guessed would become a customer favorite when I first conceived of my business in the late 1970’s.  When Violet was still running her lunch counter many years before Convito opened its doors, she made a particular tuna salad that was a student favorite around campus.  Known as Vi’s Tuna Salad, she generously shared with me that recipe and we put it on our menu immediately.  It soon became our most popular salad and remains in that position to this day.  As soon as the word spread that Violet began working at Convito, former Senn students began flocking to Convito from all over the Chicago area in hopes that they could once again purchase their much-loved salad.   And we were happy to oblige them!

Like Mary and Wanda, Italian food was critical to Violet, but it was not her only influence.  Her son David remembers growing up eating both fantastic Greek and Italian dishes like Dolmades, Mousaka, Spanakopita and Baclava, as well as a whole range of Italian dishes from his dad’s side of the family.  Her goal was always to be seated every evening around the table enjoying a hot meal together.  And while that goal was occasionally unrealized given her intensely hectic schedule, she always managed to cook for the family even if they didn’t sit down together.  Violet was always on the go!

After Violet began working at Convito there wasn’t a day when I came to open the market that I didn’t find her already there (probably for hours) surrounded by pots and pans steaming, boiling simmering on our little 4-burner electric stove – some cooking fresh pasta, others with one of Convito’s sauces gently bubbling on the back burner releasing a heavenly aroma that penetrated every square inch of our little store.  Violet was usually busily chopping fresh vegetables for one of the salads she was about to prepare or sautéing onions at the stove with at least two or three finished salads sitting in their pristine white bowls looking all fresh and beautiful and ready for purchasing customers.  She was amazing!

Not long after Violet arrived, we began cooking together and developed one of my favorite dishes – Caponata, a Sicilian sweet and sour eggplant dish often used as an antipasti.  (blog Sicily I “A Salvador Dali Weekend”)  I had always intended it to be a part of our prepared foods selection but because of the work required for its preparation – eggplant, tomatoes, celery, onions, red pepper, capers, which all had to first be chopped then sautéed – I had not attempted to make it until I had full time kitchen help.  Violet usually prepared the first batch of Caponata before the store had even opened.  However, that batch didn’t last long at all.  It became so popular that she often made fresh batches of it several times a day, sautéing pound after pound of eggplant, which, of course filled the market with the mixed aromas of sweet and sour tempting every customer that entered to buy some. “When they bury me, eggplant will be sprouting all around my grave,” Violet would laughingly say.  Caponata is also on our prepared food menu to this day.

When Violet came into my life, my Italian recipe repertoire was extensive.  Since the sixties I had cooked many Italian dishes with Mary Barocci and had been studying Italian regional cuisine with Wanda Bottino for the past several years.   So, my need for new recipes was not a top priority.  What I needed from Violet was someone to help me interpret those dishes, someone with an innate understanding of Italian cuisine to bring that food alive.  She meticulously did just that and – lucky for us – she also contributed many new ideas and recipes for both the market and the cafe.

Violet also taught me things that I hadn’t even realized were absolutely critical in the restaurant business like the care and handling of food and ingredients.  I was mesmerized watching her gingerly fold a lemon mayonnaise into a pasta salad paying attention not to bruise any of the other ingredients.  Her knowledge and expertise were extensive and she treated all ingredients with tender loving care just like they were her children.  I can’t begin to inventory all the food knowledge I gained while working with Violet.  She shared little tricks like the importance of sprinkling a good amount of salt over eggplant cubes to draw out some of its moisture and lesson its bitterness. But she also brought with her skills learned only after working in the food industry for many years, like how to enlarge a recipe.  That talent is indispensable in the restaurant busines because you cannot just double or triple the ingredients in a recipe to get more of it.  If a dish is spicy or contains alcohol, multiplying them as you would for the other ingredients is not the answer because it is easy to overpower a dish.  Trial and error were always required (which fortunately we both loved!) so it didn’t matter how much time we took – only that the recipe came out the way we thought it should.  Most of all it was just damn fun working with Violet on all these kinds of projects. We not only accomplished a lot, but we had many laughs along the way.

Violet’s role at Convito changed over the years.   Catering Director was her next official position.  But even when we moved to a larger location with a larger kitchen and opened two other locations, Violet never got far away from the kitchen.  If she wasn’t preparing market salads or sautéing chicken breasts for our new hot food case, she was checking up on the performance of whatever new chef had been hired in one of Convito’s establishments.  No matter what culinary school a new chef might have graduated from, Violet did not hesitate to correct them if she didn’t feel they were performing up to her standards.  And interestingly enough, most of those chefs (who usually didn’t take criticism well) took it from Violet and actually loved working with her.  They wanted her approval.  A not-so-infrequent question asked in the kitchen was “What would Violet think?”

Violet was a true character.  Sometimes irreverent and sometimes irascible, she was always principled and kind.  She was opinionated, but always listened to reason.  She was dependable, outrageous, caring and strong-willed and she put everything on the line for her customers.  She would do anything to make them happy and they loved her for it, as did I.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Violet’s Pollo Impressivo
(Serves 8)

 

8 – 6 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt & pepper
¼ cup olive oil
1-tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
1-cup chicken broth
½ cup capers
1 tablespoon cornstarch – mixed with a little water

Heat oven to 400 degrees

In an oven proof skillet large enough to sauté 8 chicken breasts, add olive oil and turn high to high.  When hot, place the children breast in the oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and half of the rosemary and sauté for approximately 2 – 3 minutes until breasts are golden brown on one side.  Turn the breasts over and sprinkle with the remaining rosemary and sauté until gold brown on other side – another 2-3 minutes.  Take off the burner and place the skillet with the breasts in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven and place back on stove over medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and the parsley.  Add wine and reduce wine somewhat – sautéing for about 3 minutes.  Then add chicken broth and simmer for another 3 minutes.  Remove breasts and put on a platter or individual plates.

Mix the cornstarch and the water until smooth and add to the simmering broth left in the skillet.  Turn heat to medium and stir until incorporated and the broth has thickened.  Spoon over the chicken breasts and serve hot.

Violet likes to serve with rosemary-roasted potatoes.

 

Violet stayed with us until she was 95, still slicing prosciutto and harassing the chefs in the kitchen and the clerks on the line and always adored by the staff and her customers.  She passed away this past year 2020 at the age of 103. The “spirit of Violet” will always be a part of our history.

 

 

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How lucky I was to have been educated by these three amazing women – all mentors who inspired me along my journey into the kitchen and whose influence on my career can never be fully measured.  I believe that knowledge and education are the basis of most successes, and I know that the gifts I received from these three women are indelibly connected to the success of my now forty-year old business.  The secret to long-term sustainable success is usually found in the basics – good food, good people and good service – and each of these amazing women shared that conviction.  It is to Mary Barocci that I owe thanks for introducing me to the food that would become my passion, to Wanda Bottino for teaching me its incredible depth and variety and to Violet Caldarelli who become essential in bringing those amazing flavors and tastes to all the many customers who have frequented Convito for over forty years. Certainly, all their lessons in Italian cuisine were pivotal – but their lessons in so many things that go way beyond the pots and pans in my kitchen are the lessons that will stay with me forever.

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My Journey into the Kitchen “Cooking and Comradery”

 

It is the summer of 1979.  I am standing – tired and sweaty, surrounded by a sea of cardboard boxes – in a brand-new kitchen in Glencoe Illinois where we have relocated after spending three years living outside London.  We’ve been back for months now, but our kitchen renovation took longer than promised (of course) and our family dinners have alternated between take-out or one of a handful of local restaurants we rotate through each week. And the boxes…well, they are always there…taking up space and reminding me that we are still unsettled.

So, despite what feels like the herculean task ahead of me – to unpack and sort all this…stuff – I’m ecstatic.  Finally, the mission of finding the perfect place for each pot, wooden spoon, polenta maker and wine glass will be satisfied, and I can begin to shape this new space into my own.  I designed this room not only to be the place where I would launch the creative side of my business through food experimentation and refinement, but also to be the focal point of my new home.  It was where I planned to do a lot a lot of cooking, a lot of thinking, and – hopefully – a lot of hanging out with the people that I loved and admired.  I have always believed that there is no better environment than the kitchen in which to bring people together.  Cooking and comradery are natural companions and if everything went according to plan, this new kitchen would become the quintessence of everything I wanted my business and personal life to become.

Memories of our life in England flooded back as I unwrapped the copious layers of bubble wrap and brown paper from the kitchen equipment shipped back from England.  It was complemented by a tower of beautiful newly purchased glassware, china and kitchenware that I hoped would bring some fresh sparkle to our new life back in the United States.  It had only been a few months since we left behind our adopted home in the English countryside, but it already felt like a lifetime away.

Sheila after a day at Harrods

Different recollections emerged from each box I unpacked.  My dear friend Sheila Bradley’s presence materialized from the many boxes of Waterford crystal reminding me of our intense shopping day at Harrods Department store in Knightsbridge, London.  Delicate, finely etched glassware evoked recollections of the wild shopping day I had at the famous glassmaker Salviati in Venice with good friend Mary Nahser.  And it felt like almost every box I unpacked contained something from one of my many shopping escapades with fellow ex-pat Jean Barringer.  It took me days and memory after pleasant memory to get my new kitchen in order.

 

 The final unpacking revealed what I consider to be the nuts and bolts of a kitchen: dutch ovens, bakeware, pots, pans, skillets, sauce pans, mixing bowls, knives and utensils – all the essentials needed to slice and dice and mix ingredients to their maximum potential.  These tools would allow me to actually create the items that would eventually be placed on or in all of that lovely china and glassware.

 

The first challenge for my new headquarters was to test recipes for the new Italian venture that my partner, Paolo Volpara and I had decided to launch.  We were not sure what form that business would take but we knew it would involve Italian food and wine, so my study of Italian cuisine needed to begin immediately.

the first of nine “capitolos”

Our initial idea was to publish a newsletter each month that would feature recipes and wine from the region  – a wine and food club of sorts.  We called them Capiolos which translates to Chapters in English.  Each Capitolo would include articles on regional history and culture, but the main focus was food.  We ended up publishing nine of these Capitolos and since each one contained a minimum of six recipes – and sometimes as many as twelve – I was pretty much tied to my stove, cranking out Italian dish after Italian dish, learning about the great diversity of Italian cuisine along the way.

Something was always simmering on my stove, roasting in my oven or being mixed or mashed or tossed in one of my many newly purchased vessels. For that first year after my return, my friends and family pretty much always knew where to find me – in my kitchen surrounded by pots, pans and a plethora of produce, pastas, meats and numerous other ingredients – some familiar, some not – but all eventually to find their way into some new dish I was about to prepare.

Nancy at stove Convito’s first location

In the end, Paolo and I decided not to limit ourselves to this idea of cultural education and instead decided to open a brick-and-mortar Italian wine and food market, where we offered not just the newsletter, but also the ingredients and prepared dishes that the Capitolos detailed.  But even after we opened this first version of Convito, I still tested most of the recipes in my home kitchen since the tiny little four-burner electric stove in back of our deli was hardly conducive to testing.  As it was, I barely had enough space to slice prosciutto or to wrap fresh pasta, let alone run a test kitchen!  So, my personal headquarters was the better option. 

Working with ingredients and methods that were sometimes entirely new to me was exciting and challenging, but I occasionally ended up with concoctions of a dubious nature.  Though rarely did I throw anything out before someone else had tried it, sometimes even my best efforts at salvaging a wayward dish were unsuccessful.  My built-in tasters (Bob, Rob and Candace) would always arrive hungry and game to sample something new, but even my home team would have to give me an occasionally “thumbs down” when I couldn’t quite salvage a wayward dish.  But I came to understand that these failures were part of the process and I eventually learned to focus on the triumphs instead!

Mostly I worked alone but occasionally my good friend Janet Alms came over to help.  I loved the company and the extra set of hands.  We also shared many a good belly-laugh as we cooked and giggled our way through the list of recipes I put on the agenda for that day.  Often times the laughter came about from just trying to unscramble Paolo’s mother Wanda’s translated recipes.

But more often than not our laughter came from nervously working with exotic and unfamiliar ingredients like bottarga (pressed then dried fish roe, a specialty of southern Italy).  “What the hell is this?”  Janet asked – holding up what looked like a golden-brown, adobe-like brick.  “Is this even edible?” After a good laugh, we tackled Wanda’s recipe for spaghetti tossed with a little olive oil, parsley, chili peppers, and the “brick” (bottarga) grated over the top.  Bottarga has a very distinctive, salty, briny somewhat bitter flavor. I couldn’t imagine I would like it with anything but definitely changed my mind after the recipe was completed.  It was surprisingly delicious!

We were also dubious about Nduja, a Calabrian spicy, spreadable pork sausage mixed with a blend of chili peppers.  Janet and I poked and sniffed it for a while and before shrugging our shoulders and trusting that Wanda’s combination of nduja with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs would become something special.  Once again we discovered it was also surprisingly tasty – savory, spicy and especially great as a sauce for chicken.  Years later I served in in my café naming it Pollo alla Calabrese (blog post Basilicata and Calabria “Behind Closed Doors”). I was beginning to look forward to new flavors and textures realizing that most often they took me on a new taste adventure and expanded my culinary knowledge.  Janet, an adventurous soul, was excited to be a part of the discovery. (Today both of these ingredients are readily available in most specialty markets.)

The cooking session with Janet that I remember most was the day we were to make a very simple calamari salad from the Veneto region.  Though I was familiar with calamari (I had often ordered fried calamari in restaurants), I had never cooked it. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that you could buy pre-cleaned calamari so instead I came home with a big bag that was frozen, un-cleaned and surprisingly squid-like!    Before we even got to the “simple” salad recipe, we had to first defrost the calamari then laboriously struggle with the cleaning of this alien-looking creature.  Beginning by removing the finned, tube-looking portion from the tentacles (which was weird enough), we bravely continued on to remove the beak and discard the cuttlebone.  Luckily I found cleaning instructions in a Good Housekeeping cookbook (there was no internet back then) to help us through the whole process which probably took way longer than it should have – mainly because we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing.

By the end of this process our fingers were raw and slimy and we were ready to move on to actually making the salad.  As we were cleaning up, Janet picked up a thin silvery sac that we had put off to one side (it seemed to be particularly gross) and it suddenly split open.  Whoosh!  Black squid ink spilled out in all directions, dripping over the countertop onto the tiled kitchen floor below.  We began frantically mopping up the ink – our hands becoming stained black in the process –   hysterically laughing the whole time, tears streaming down both of our faces.  The grout between some of the tiles turned black and remained that way for years to come as a reminder of that day with the squid!

Once we finally got to the salad preparation, it took almost no time at all.  It was very simple and very delicious!  However, that afternoon session marked the end of my calamari cooking days.  Let the competent calamari-familiar chefs in the restaurant kitchens do all the work I thought – and I will simply enjoy the results!

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Insalata di Calamari
Squid, Tomato & Basil Salad
Serves 6 – 8 as an antipasti

 

2 lbs squid (purchase cleaned and cut into tentacles and body parts)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 cups sliced tomatoes (seeded)
½ cup fresh basil, julienned
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Rinse the squid in water.  Pat dry on paper towels.  Slice the body parts into rings about ¾ – 1 inch slices.

In a large sauté pan over high heat, add the olive oil.  When hot add the squid and sauté quickly (approximately 1 ½ minutes).  Add the garlic.  Then add the lemon zest and lemon juice and cook another minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat.

When cool, add the tomatoes, basil, additional olive oil and vinegar.  Toss well.

Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve at room temperature.

 

Another avenue for testing my new Italian dishes was to try them out for my friends and family at a dinner party.  This way I could retest each dish and ask my dinner guests for their input.  I had many dinner parties during the first five years after my return from England.  Besides being a “testing outlet”, entertaining was something I truly enjoyed.  By this time, I had formulated my “dinner party style,” points I followed for each and every dinner party I hosted – small, large, casual, formal, indoors or out.

The FOOD naturally comes first in my planning.  The menu is what stimulates me to have a dinner party in the first place.  What type of cuisine?  New dishes or old favorites?  How many courses?  Formal or casual fare?  It is a pleasure for me to think about types of food, dishes that go well with one another and just the overall food focus of the event.

Next I think about the GUEST LIST.  Choosing people that compliment each other – whether by common interests or personality – dramatically increases the odds of the success of any gathering.  When it’s a large gathering that is a less important element because there is much mingling of different groups and “matching” becomes more up to the guests than the hostess.   But when the intimacy of a meal for 6 – 10 people where sitting at the table and conversing during and in between courses is a big part of the evening, the guest list is much more important.

Then comes the WINE and how it pairs with the food – important to me especially after I opened my market and café where wine is a big part of my business.   For a large gathering one simply has to pick a good white and a good red but in a small gathering when the dinner is comprised of multi-courses, matching wine and food is an essential and complex task, but one that was always rewarding to undertake.

The last criteria I consider is the LOOK of my table.  Though not necessarily crucial to the success of a dinner party it is for me maybe the most fun part of the planning.  I love working on the centerpiece and pulling together elements from the china and pottery, glassware and other artifacts I have collected over the years to make a table setting match the theme or mood I have decided upon for my “event” – whether a lunch, a dinner, a buffet or a large cocktail party.

 

Paolo and I in the Kitchen

Since most of my testing for the Capitolos was focused on the regions of Italy, the dinner parties I hosted early on had a regional theme. The very first one was to celebrate Piemonte, the northeast region where my mentor and partner had grown up.  Not only was it one of the first regions that Wanda and I tested (some dishes in her small Milanese kitchen and some in my new kitchen) but also because I had visited it frequently with Paolo.  It was close to our Milanese headquarters so weekend sojourns were easy.  I knew it well.

 

The dinner party took place on a cold, snowy evening in February – the weather perfectly in tune with the hearty, robust cuisine and big full-flavored wines of the region.  Once I decided on the menu I turned to the guest list, deciding on a group of “arty” people who I knew had a great appreciation for both food and wine – rather essential I thought for this heavily focused food and wine dinner.  My list began with my artist sister, Karen and her-very-art-knowledgeable husband Jeff.  I expanded the list to include a Chicago art gallery owner and her husband, an architect and an interior designer.

Piemonte table

Because Piemonte is one of the great wine regions of Italy (and perhaps the world) pairing the food with the wine took on even more importance than usual.  Its most important grape variety, Nebbiolo, produces powerful, full-bodied red wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara. But there are other great wines that come from this region as well.  Barbera, Dolcetto, the famous sparkling Asti Spumante and two of my favorite whites Gavi and Arneis are among them.  My goal was to find a way to incorporate as many of these wines as possible into my menu either by matching them with one of the courses or by actually using them as an ingredient in the cooking of one of the dishes.

The evening began with my guests gathered in the living room with a glass of Gavi, a delicate floral white wine, accompanied by breadsticks.  Since breadsticks are said to have originated in Torino, the capital of Piemonte, they fit well with the theme for the evening. Plus they are easy to easy to eat while standing up and socializing.  I like to begin my dinner parties with light fare so as not to fill guests up before the main event.  And the main event this night would be a multi-coursed dinner.

Piemonte dinner

It was here during this hour that I gave guests an overview of what to expect on their culinary journey – – and it was the last time for the next hour or two where I wasn’t shuffling between the kitchen and the dining room cooking and plating the dinner I had prepared.  Bob escorted our guests into the dining room.  The “look” of my table that evening was to somehow convey a wine theme.  The centerpiece contained not just flowers but also grapes and was surrounded by six antique twisted wooden candlesticks intended to give the illusion of grape vines. The lace tablecloth and the simple grape embossed wine glasses gave the table a homey, rustic feeling – the very feeling I had experienced in many of the small, intimate out-of-the-way, restaurants of the region – some of my favorite in all of Italy.

I served the more complex, rich white wine Arneis with the first course – a gratin of roasted red and yellow peppers with anchovies.  It held up to the complexity of the dish.  It also went well with the next course of savory spinach and cheese sausages.   As I scurried back and forth from the kitchen to my seat at the table, I counted on my husband to take care of the wine.  Since I opened Convito Italiano, he had become very knowledgeable about Italian wine, so his commentary on each wine allowed my absence to go largely unnoticed.

I managed to incorporate three wines that night during the main course.  I used a Barbera as a braising ingredient for the roasted leg of veal and served a wonderful big Barbaresco as the accompanying wine.  And the potatoes served with the veal were cooked in Asti Spumante.  Bingo – three wines in one course!  We finished with the coup de gras – pears poached in the most famous wine of the region Barolo.  (All recipes can be found in My Italian Journeys – Piemonte I, II and III).

We finished our wine, relaxed for a while then completed our culinary journey with espresso and a famous chocolate of the region – gianduia – a chocolate pudding with hazelnut flavoring.    As it turned out, the “Piemonte group” had great chemistry.  They matched each other as well as the wines matched the food.  Conversation flowed.  One of the best things about a “themed” dinner party is that it provides built-in conversation and also ties the evening together.  That is, as long as my commentary about the food, wine and culture doesn’t dominate.  The purpose is to take guests on an adventure while still allowing them to socialize.

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The success of my Piemontese dinner gave me the confidence to try something different for my next regional dinner party – an outside affair.  The region I chose was Tuscany and featured Bistecca alla Fiorentina – a steak marinated in extra virgin olive oil and rosemary, seasoned with salt and pepper then lightly seared on a very hot grill leaving the center bright pink.  Since the steak was to be cooked on our patio grill, an outside gathering seemed the obvious choice. 

 

The “look” of the table for the night was less important since it was the height of the summer season.  Flowering bushes and flowering plants surrounded us and the need for candlelight was eliminated since the clear, cloudless blue sky remained light until 9:30.  I did, however, make a centerpiece with flowers from my garden and used my Tuscan pottery for the salad course and my Villeroy & Boch “Medici” patterned charger plates for the main course

Tuscany is another of Italy’s famous wine regions, so like my Piemonte dinner, wine was an important component of the evening.  So was the guest list.  I wanted to make certain that they were wine enthusiasts, so my friend (and famous food writer and journalist) Bill Rice who had visited and written about Tuscany frequently anchored the guest list.  Bill’s credentials for comprehensive knowledge of wine and food were quite impressive.  He was executive food editor for the Washington Post for eight years, wrote for Food & Wine Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and was author of several award-winning cookbooks.

We began our evening gathered around the grill with a lovely crisp white Vernaccia di San Gimignano while munching on a Tuscan favorite of mine – crostini topped with a chicken liver spread. (blog – Tuscany II).  Once we were seated, I served a glass of Vermentino – a more fruity and citrusy white wine with the first course – and a Panzanella salad; a mixture of summer tomatoes, cucumbers, thinly sliced red onion, basil and toasted croutons tossed lightly with a red wine vinaigrette (recipe also in blog Tuscany II).

Chianti – the most famous wine of the region, accompanied the main course – the grilled steak – which I served with a dish of Tuscan beans and potatoes.  White beans –  cannellini in particular – are a ubiquitous ingredient in Tuscan dishes.  In fact, they are so common, Tuscans are often referred to as “mangiafagioli”  – translated it means “bean eaters”.  I loved the combination of white beans and potatoes with sauteed pancetta and onions elevating the savory component of the dish. (blog Tuscany III “ A Region for all Seasons”).

I was not the only one discussing the regional food and wine that evening.   Bill Rice related his many visits to various Tuscan wine estates – where no doubt he was treated like a king – and he also brought along two bottles of incredible Tuscan wine a Brunello di Montalchino from the famous producer Altesino, as well as another Chianti.  I had served Monsanto Chianti with our meal and his was from the equally famous wine producer Antinori.  Both were rich, robust examples of Chianti at its very best.  Given our bounty of fine wine, we embarked on our own mini-wine-tasting headed by the master himself, Bill Rice.  My guests were enthralled by the wine and especially by Bill’s commentary, delivered in his own dry, witty style with sidebar stories by Bill’s wife, Jill Van Cleave, also a cookbook author and friend of mine from the professional culinary women’s organization Les Dames d’Escoffier. After a refreshing dish of lemon sorbetto we ended our Tuscan evening with a glass of the famous Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo and a few almond twice-baked cantucci (said to have originated in the Tuscan city of Prato).

As guests began leaving, Bill asked me if I would share my white bean and potato recipe with him.  I was thrilled and of course, agreed to send it the next day.  It later appeared in his Chicago Tribune column and eventually in his cookbook Steak Lover’s Cookbook – of course giving me credit for the recipe. In his cookbook he described it as “a vegetable side dish that refused to play a supporting role”.

The recipe as translated by Bill, was much clearer and more organized than the one I had originally given him. I was beginning to learn from all of my cookbook-author friends the lessons of good recipe writing as well as the importance of testing and
retesting every recipe.  I was, however, surprised that Bill pretty much followed the exact ingredients and measurements I had given him, though his instructions were much clearer than mine.  I took note!  My recipe writing in the future improved.

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I continued my regional dinner parties with a particularly formal affair featuring the exotic and complicated cuisine of Veneto.  This dinner party was held on New Year’s Eve for our “New Year’s Eve Group” – friends that had celebrated that holiday together since 1969.  The original group (Janet & Paul Alms, Sheila & Ed Bradley, Colleen & Tom Thompson and me and my then husband Bob) had all decided that having a small intimate dinner was infinitely preferable to the noisy, horn-blowing, confetti-throwing events that we had all experienced in the past.  We started what eventually became a tradition at Janet and Paul Alms’ home with a delicious Coq au Vin dinner that set a high bar.  Every year we rotated houses with the host/hostess deciding on the menu.  When my then-husband and I returned from England, the original group was still intact (though Colleen Thompson had become Colleen Remsberg and introduced her wonderful new husband Chuck to the mix) and we also added good friends Mary & Ron Nahser and Colleen & Mike Houlahan.

 

 

When it was my turn to hostess, I chose Carnevale as my theme for the evening.  Carnevale, the pre-lent festival was not until February but its celebratory focus seemed to fit the mood of New Year’s Eve and it was a great chance for me to use all the Carnevale masks I had acquired over the years for the “look” of my table.

The artistic masks would of course, star in my centerpiece of pink and rose-colored flowers.  They sat between beautiful clear and pink etched glass candelabras also purchased during a trip to Venice.   Small etched wine goblets, water goblets and larger red wine glasses were placed just in the top-right corner of pink charger plates completing what I considered to be a very festive table.


The guest list was easy – our New Year’s Eve group, of course – old friends who never seemed to run out of topics to discuss.  What better way to welcome the New Year than with friends that know your history and share your sense of humor.  And because they are all very curious people, they seemed to welcome the regional discussions of the wine, culture and food of Veneto.

The New Year’s Eve Group

I wanted the meal to emphasize both sides of the Veneto I had come to know; the sophistication of the more famous dishes of Venice, as well as he lesser-known fare of the countryside.   I began the meal with a dish that paid tribute to both parts of the region, Prosciutto Wrapped Lemon Shrimp that I passed in the living room along with a glass of sparkling wine.  Who would have thought that prosciutto and shrimp would go together so well?  The saltiness of the prosciutto truly complimented the meatiness of the shrimp and matched well with Italy’s most famous sparkling wine, Prosecco.

All my guests knew about Harry’s Bar in Venice, opened in 1931 by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani and some had actually been there, so I decided to serve their signature carpaccio for our first course.  Harry’s Bar was famous for three things: Bellini cocktails, celebrity clientele and their carpaccio.  Their signature dish was named after Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian Renaissance painter known for his use of brilliant reds and whites in the minute detail of his landscape painting and the actual color palate of this dish.  I served it with another famous name from the region, a glass of Soave, Veneto’s most famous white wine – its oily-like richness able to stand up to raw beef.

Then came a classic rice and pea dish called Rise e Bisi, representing the homey side of the Veneto, served with one of the most well known wines of the region – Pinot Grigio. I love the simplicity of risi e bisi.  It is similar to risotto but a bit on the soupy side (intentionally) so I served it in soup dishes.  Finally I served a duck breast with a side dish of baked red onions stuffed with a squash puree.  Not only did I use Amarone (the region’s most famous red wine) to make a sauce for the duck, but also served the very same wine to accompany that dish.  The red fruit intensity of Amarone pairs perfectly with duck.

We concluded with Tiramisu, the iconic dessert invented in the Veneto region in the 1960s with, of course, yet another glass of Prosecco.  Lots of food.  Lots of wine.  And lots of good cheer!  Felice Anno Nuovo!

© rob warner photography 2020

Prosciutto Wrapped Lemon Shrimp
Serves 6 (2 shrimp per person)

12 medium shrimp, cleaned and cooked
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
freshly ground pepper
salt to taste
3 slices of prosciutto, sliced thin

 

Marinate the shrimp in the olive oil and the lemon juice, lemon zest, lots of freshly grated pepper and salt to taste.  Marinate for at least two hours.

Cut each slice of prosciutto in half lengthwise, then in half horizontally producing 12 slices of prosciutto.  Each prosciutto slice should be about 6 inches long and 1½ inches wide.  Place each shrimp at the end of the prosciutto slice and roll the shrimp in the slice wrapping it around the shrimp, leaving the ends of the shrimp exposed. Serve at room temperature as a passed appetizer or as a delicious first course serving 2 or 3 prosciutto wrapped shrimp on a bed of arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon.

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My series of regional dinners was not only a great outlet for retesting the dishes I had been cooking in my kitchen, but also were enormously gratifying – an avenue for me to celebrate the many great aspects of the latest region I had been studying and testing recipes for.  But not every dinner party had a single region as its theme.  Some menus were comprised of dishes from all over Italy.  The most memorable of these “all Italian” dinners was the one I cooked for the Great Cooks section of Bon Appetit magazine.  As thrilled as I was to be selected for this honor, I was also filled with nervous anticipation.  Up until this time, press coverage of Convito had mostly centered on my market and café. This article would be much more personal – an actual photo shoot to take place in my home with me as the main attraction.  Yikes!

The theme the magazine had selected was a formal one.   “Elegant Do-Ahead Dinner” would be the headline with the sub-title “An Illinois Hostess Creates a Superb Italian Menu for 12”.  The pressure was on. I immediately began combing through my recipes.  I wanted my menu to represent the diversity of Italian cuisine as well as the strengths of my quickly developing culinary skills.

Test, test, test were the words I awakened to every morning.  I had to get this right.  After all it was a national exposure for my business.  The dishes I selected included Napolitano Marinated Mussels, Venetian Shrimp in Tomatoes, Tuscan Croutons with Broccoli Puree and several dishes from the Piemonte region – Spinach and Cheese Sausage, Spumonte Potatoes and a chocolate hazelnut pudding called Gianduia.  The main course was from Umbria – Chicken in Piquant Liver Sauce preceded by a salad from Lombardia, Artichokes with Mushrooms.  Before the actual event occurred I must have tested each of these dishes three of four times.  My kitchen became my home during the entire month prior to the shoot.

 

 

Finally, the day arrived.  I was ready – or so I thought.  Arriving first was the journalist who was writing the article.  Following her was a food stylist and her assistant, then a woman who was clearly in charge of the whole production – introducing me to everyone and explaining how the day would proceed.  During her very lengthy explanation the camera crew arrived, several men entering the kitchen with what seemed like a whole truckload of equipment, lights, cameras and lots of things I couldn’t identify.  Needless to say I was completely overwhelmed.

The magazine not only wanted to photograph me cooking all the dishes to be included in the article but they also wanted shots of my table, my husband pouring wine and even my kids helping me prepare one of the dishes.  The idyllic family all happily cooking together!  The final photograph would be of the twelve guests.

 

 

When I finished cooking each dish, the food stylist plated the item then whisked it away to the area where it was to be photographed.  To me this was the most interesting part of the day. I learned so many tricks about food photography just by watching the stylist tweak each dish – a little olive oil applied carefully with a brush or a spritz of water to make a dish look fresh and appetizing.  It was amazing to watch.  I would use all those tricks in the years ahead for various Convito food photography sessions and for this blog.  The goal, I learned was to make the dish look mouth-watering not to necessarily taste mouth-watering.  It was beginning to dawn on me that all of the food I was preparing for my “elegant dinner party” would not be edible by the time they all arrived.

It was a thoroughly exhausting, but incredibly fun day.  As the hour approached for my guests to arrive, I left my horribly messy kitchen and went to change into my party dress (I would worry about cleaning up later).  I greeted them all with a glass of wine escorting them into our living where they would be “positioned” by the photographer around my cocktail table, which was covered with bowls and platters of appetizers all of which had been “tweaked” and handled by the food stylist for hours. We all proceeded to “stage” our cocktail hour pretending to enjoy the food while we sipped our wine and engaged in what I’m sure was rather vacuous conversation.  It was hard to concentrate since the camera was clicking and we were constantly being repositioned for what the photographer felt would be the best shot.

All of my guests were good friends who were working at or with Convito in some capacity and had been forewarned that this “dinner party” was really for a photo shoot so nothing seemed to surprise them.  They were all just incredibly good sports.

 

 

As the Bon Appetit crew packed up and left, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  Except for me…I still had to serve dinner for twelve!  It had been clear early on that most of the food I had cooked would be inedible.  As it turned out, it was ALL-inedible.   Once this became an established fact, my husband, Bob thankfully placed an order for pizza.

 

 

When we finally all adjourned to my dining room table – which was formally decked out in a lace tablecloth topped with crystal goblets, bone china and candlesticks – no one cared that our meal was not made up of the elegant dishes that had been photographed (and ruined) hours earlier.  The pepperoni pizzas and a plethora of fine Italian wines was the perfect accompaniment to the comprehensive “review” of our elegant “pretend dinner”.  We would all look at articles like this in magazines and newspapers quite differently in the future.  It was all mirrors and magic!

 

It’s amazing how magic works.  Just recently I ran into one of the 12 guests who attended this dinner.  I told him that I was writing about our Bon Appetit dinner party in my next blog.   “Oh I remember that so well!  Each course was fantastic,” he responded.  “Ron”, I said, “we didn’t eat any of the dinner I had prepared.  You didn’t have a multi-coursed Italian dinner at all.  You just had pepperoni pizza.”  We both had a good laugh!

 

 

 

 

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Fresh Mushrooms and Artichoke Salad
Serves 12

 

4 large artichokes
½ lemon
¾ # mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 ounces Parmesan cheeses, shaved with potato peeler (about 2 cups)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper

 

Snap off upper ¾ of each artichoke leaf. (leaving just inner cone of leaves), rubbing exposed parts with lemon as you work, to prevent discoloration. Cut off cone of leaves to just above artichoke bottom.  Trim and discard darker green parts using paring knife. (leave heart and choke in tact)  Bring large amount of salted water to a boil in large pot (or prepare steamer).  Squeeze juice of cut lemon into water then add lemon shell.  Add artichokes, cover pot with paper towel and boil or steam until just crisp tender – about 3 minutes. Drain well.  Pat dry.  Cool.

To serve, remove chokes with spoon or knife tip, then slice artichoke bottoms thinly. Transfer to a large bowl.  Add mushrooms and cheese.  Whisk olive oil with lemon juice one drop at a time.  Pour dressing over mushroom mixture and toss gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Line individual plates with lettuce leaf.  Top with salad.

 

I had my amazing kitchen for almost twelve years.  It is by far the best one I ever had – the most functional, the most beautiful and the very best “hanging around” space I could ask for.  And it was mine during the time that I was at my most creative – testing recipes for my new food venture and entertaining like I had never done before or since.  It is crazy when I look back to all the parties I had during these twelve years – parties for friends, for staff, for family.  I don’t know where I found the time to also manage the details of my new business.  Oh, the energy of youth!

Cooking with friends like Janet Alms, with family-members like my mother-in-law Mary Barocci, with my sister Karen and with my two children Rob and Candace is a gift I will never forget.  I cannot imagine a warmer, more collaborative environment in which to make great food and even better memories.  Those sessions, those dishes, those people, and that kitchen are indelibly etched into my memory bank and remain some of the sweetest and the most delicious times of my life.

 

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My Journey into the Kitchen “My European Classroom”

 

The greatest cities of Europe – Paris, Rome, Berlin – were just a short distance away from where we lived outside of London during the three years I lived in England.  Because I could fly to France or Italy or Germany for just a long weekend, travel became much easier – much more accessible and more frequent.  I learned quickly that I could experience all the glories of Paris not just in April but also in summer, in autumn and even in winter.   To see the avenues lined with stunning fall foliage or alternately, with the happy blossoms of spring or even in the rainy months of winter, the avenues with a kind of soft light glowing from its handsome lamp posts giving them an impressionistic moody radiance   – each season painting a very different picture of this beautiful city. I didn’t have a favorite.  I loved them all – all the seasons – in all of the many countries I had the good fortune to visit during my years abroad.

I also learned the fine art of traveling – how to make the total experience of visiting a brand-new country – whether one of its small villages, its peaceful countryside or its bustling cities – deeper and more meaningful.  That skill of finding the right balance of education and fun was one I picked up from Nancy Youngclaus (now Nancy Tooman), a master at injecting intense touring activities with leisurely lunches and delightful dinners that brought personality and a true sense of place to the town or country being visited.  Our stroll down the historic Champs-Elysees was elevated with a glass of Champagne at Fouquet’s outdoor café;  an already magical walking tour of Strasbourg was made unforgettable when we sought refuge from an unexpected snowstorm by ducking into the much celebrated Au Crocodile for a lunch of inspired Alsatian food; and our exploration of Rome’s most colorful produce market – Campo de Fiori – was transformed when we escaped the crowds and sated our hungry bellies with a slice of pizza from the piazza’s corner bakery Forno Campo de Fiori.

Bill Youngcaus, Nancy’s husband at the time, was employed by the same advertising agency as my then-husband Bob.  Nancy and Bill were experienced ex-pats, living in Caracas, Venezuela and then Surrey, England for over three years.   They knew the plusses and minuses of living abroad.  One of those plusses – a big one – was travel. Travel, they believed, expanded the mind by introducing you to new cultures, new ways of thinking and of course, new foods.  We would eventually travel all over Europe with them and I was the lucky recipient of all their expertise.

Bob and Bill met in Chicago as young account-executives at Leo Burnett before any of us lived abroad. That business connection grew into a friendship, which eventually included Nancy and I, so when they were assigned to the Caracas office in the early ‘70s our budding relationship took a pause.  A few years later it was our turn when Bob was assigned to manage the London office.  Nancy and Bill had already been transferred there too so we were all thrilled at the prospect of reconnecting with them in England. However, that excitement didn’t last long.  Months after we arrived, the Youngclaus family packed up again and relocated to Frankfurt where Bill had been reassigned – once again – to run Burnett’s Germany office. As disappointed as we were, that certainly did not prevent us from making frequent plans to travel together, sometimes with our kids in tow and sometimes just the four adults.  Either way, it was always a delight to be with them and always a learning experience.  Nancy, an art history major, was the perfect museum guide.  She was a brilliant lecturer and instinctively knew just how much history and explanation would take us right up to (but not past) the moment when our children’s eyes would glaze over – actually sometimes even the adults – and she would lose us.  Incredibly, she rarely did, and I think my kids absorbed more cultural history from Nancy than they did in all their studies until they got to college.

Nancy Tooman (then Youngclaus) in Paris

Our first ever trip to Paris was a family affair with Robby (11), Candace (6) and the two Youngclaus girls – Lisa (12) and Ann (11) joining the four adults. While the Dads were in meetings, Nancy treated me and the kids to her Ville Lumiere (City of Light) tour, an age-neutral introduction to Paris delivered as we visited a few of the city’s most magical sites. Number one on our tour was the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of Paris. Our collective amazement of ascending the iron structure via a combination of elevators and (countless) stairs to the top was rewarded with a magnificent view of the city.

Ann, Robby, Lisa and Candace in front of Fouquets on Champs-Elysees

Also included in Nancy’s City of Lights tour was the Champs-Elysees with the Arc de Triomphe positioned at its western terminus where twelve radiating avenues all converge. Its imposing majesty made it a logical second destination for anyone who wants to feel the power and energy of this city.  Sitting in the chic outside café of my go-to spot Fouquets, we enjoyed a feast of ice cream and delicate French pastries and all found ourselves caught up in the excitement of watching an incredible parade of people from all over the world do their “hustle and bustle” on one of the world’s grandest avenues.  It felt like we had arrived at the center of the universe.

Nancy’s goal in this Ville Lumiere tour was to give us a grand overall feeling of the city and its atmosphere.  Much of our tour was spent outside – strolls on the quieter, cobblestone streets of the Left Bank, walks up and down the glamorous and more open avenues of the Right Bank and a most memorable boat trip on the Seine, the river that flows through the heart of Paris giving us all a breathtaking perspective of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Nancy did, however, indulge us with just one museum tour – her “Kid Tour” of the Louvre, the largest museum in the world containing one of the world’s most impressive collections of art.  Considering that this museum is known to be overwhelming even for adults, Nancy decided to substantially shorten our tour by making a beeline to Leonardo De Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Hand in hand, weaving in and out of the crowds, we followed her – at last coming to a halt in front of this famous lady.  Nancy’s lecture on the artist, the mystique of the painting and the lore of its ownership over the centuries, concluded with a hushed description about how the Mona Lisa’s eyes seem to follow the viewer as one moves around the room.  Something scientific about optical illusions was the explanation which I didn’t quite understand at the time (or if I’m honest, to this day), but regardless, I found the idea that Mona Lisa is always looking at you downright eerie.  The kids were mesmerized by this yarn Nancy spun combining art, legend, history and science.   I’m not sure how well they remember it, but for me the painting and Nancy’s stories are forever intertwined.

After an appropriate length of time admiring the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, Nancy turned us all around and again quickly led us through the crowd to the museum’s exit in search of the nearest cafe for lunch. We were starving!  Paris has lots of cafes, bistros and brasseries with kid friendly food and we found a charming one facing the Louvre situated in the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli. My kid’s favorite lunch in Paris (actually in many of the cities they visited) was a grilled cheese sandwich with pommes frites.  It simply felt like home.   Another dish they frequently ordered during this Paris trip was a crepe stuffed with ham and cheese topped with a creamy cheese sauce.

I also had my own Parisian ham and cheese favorite – the Croque-Monsier – basically a ham and cheese sandwich but oh-so much more delicious.  The Croque Monsieur is traditionally made with ham and either Emmental or Gruyere cheese between slices of brioche-like bread, then topped with grated cheese and either baked in an oven or fried in a frying pan. Some brasseries also add Béchamel sauce, making it even richer and more delicious.  Another version is the Croque Madame, which is the same sandwich only topped with a fried egg.  I love both.  The Croque Monsieur is currently on the Convito menu and has become a customer favorite.

We avoided fancier French restaurants with precious (and extremely expensive) food when we dined with the kids. Instead we chose more casual bistros and brasseries where the atmosphere was bustling and noisy and the food simpler and more familiar. The eight of us added to the noise level of any brasserie or bistro we chose by loudly assaulting Bill (the only fluent French speaker in the group) with a ton of questions about the menu, about pronunciation, about everything! We also bombarded him (usually at the same time and at the same volume) with demands of what to tell or ask the waiter. You could see beads of perspiration breaking out on his brow during each dinner. And it wasn’t just the children who were demanding his attention – it was also the other three adults. I never fully learned how fluent he was in French, but it was clear that he was way better than the rest of us, so he became our de-facto translator. Once the ordering was complete you could see him relax and enjoy himself – that is, until the next meal. Poor guy!

Onion soup was frequently my choice of a first course. Since it is so rich and filling, I always tried to follow it with something light. But the call of steak-frites or roast chicken with mashed potatoes was often too strong to resist. Today when I prepare onion soup at home, I usually serve it as the main course accompanied by a green salad. The recipe I still use is from the French cooking classes I took from Leslee Reis before I moved to England. I’m certain Leslee based her recipe on all the many onion soups she consumed while traveling and studying in Paris. I love its somewhat sweet, deep flavor with its savory, cheesy gratinee and crunchy crouton. It is the recipe I use in my restaurant today.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Soupe A L’Oignon Gratinee

Soup
3 Tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (about 2 ½ pounds)
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar*
3 Tablespoons flour
8 cups beef stock
1 cup white or red wine or dry vermouth
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon sage
¼ cup cognac

Heat butter and oil until bubbling. Add sliced onions and stir. Cover and cook over moderate – low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover pan, raise heat to moderate-high and stir in salt and sugar*. Cook 30 minutes, stirring frequently; onions should be a deep golden brown.

Lower heat, stir in flour, and cook slowly, stirring for 2 minutes.

Remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup of the stock and whisk to blend flour = then add remaining stock and wine, seasonings and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly for 30 – 40 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Add the cognac and stir well. Taste for seasoning.

*Sugar helps to brown onions

 

Gratinee
8 – 10 French bread slices about 1 inch thick*
1 ½ cups grated imported Swiss or Gruyere cheese

Pre-heat the oven broiler.

Ladle the hot soup into 6 individual soup crocks or heatproof bowls. Top each with a browned bread slice. Sprinkle each with ¼ cup of grated cheese. Place the bowls on a cookie sheet for ease in handling.

Set in middle of a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Can run under broiler to glaze cheese.

*French bread slices – better if French baguette is somewhat stale. 6 tablespoons butter melted mixed with 3 tablespoons oil. Brush on bread slices and brown in skillet turning to brown both sides.

 

We continued traveling with Nancy and Bill Youngclaus throughout our time in England.  Traveling as a foursome with two Nancys could be confusing with both of us constantly responding to the name “Nancy” whether it was meant for us or not.  One day not long into our journeys Bill solved the problem starting to call his wife (the taller one) “Big Nanc” and me (the shorter one) “little Nanc” – names we call one another to this day.  One of the most infamous trips we took was another French journey – one that I came to refer to as the Butter Trip.  It was an “adults only” journey through the French Riviera beginning in St. Tropez and traveling north along the Mediterranean Sea with stops in Cannes and Nice and finally ending – fat and full – in Monte Carlo.

We were determined to dine at as many Michelin-starred restaurants as possible, which is how it came to be known as the ButterTrip to me since butter was the key ingredient in almost every French sauce we had. It was also the most crucial component of croissants – the irresistible pastry which we devoured each morning at breakfast.  Nancy claims it was me who decided that we dine in these Michelin restaurants since I had brought along a tattered Gourmet magazine with a dogeared article featuring the French Riviera’s best restaurants.  Supposedly, I referenced it every day of our trip.  Though I wish I could blame someone else for what was probably the most indulgent culinary adventure of my life, her description of the origins of our expedition sounds about right!

Little Nanc and Big Nanc in St Tropez

St Tropez – long popular with both artists and the International Jet Set– was our first stop.  Since Bob and Bill were more than happy to spend their afternoons on the Tahiti topless beach made famous in the Bridgette Bardot movie “And God Created Women,” Nancy and I were mostly on our own.  Though I felt somewhat out of place amongst this rich and famous crowd, the “people watching” – component combined with our many fantastic meals – more than made up for any self-consciousness I might have had to endure.

It was here that I was first introduced to Bouillabaisse, the traditional fish stew of the south of France.  Fish to me represents eating light, but not so with this aromatic, complex and rich dish that also contains potatoes, garlic aioli and thick slices of bread.  Delicious, but not light!  I ordered it several times during our journey and was never disappointed.

I also frequently ordered Loup de Mer, a Mediterranean seabass.  Preparations varied, but I soon came to realize that most of the versions I chose were butter-based.  And when it came to dessert, we continued to indulge!  Without fail we seemed to always pick the richest item on the menu – mousse au chocolat (a quintessential French dessert) or millefeuille (another classic French sweet consisting of layers of razor-thin puff pastry and cream filling).  And how could we resist a cheese course finale with local selections ranging from tangy Roquefort to rich creamy Brie.  It’s amazing we didn’t get gout on this journey!

By the time we reached Cannes we were desperate for something simple and fresh.  We found it in the form of Salades Nicoise which we all ordered for lunch on the beach in front of the famous Carlton Hotel.  Finally no butter!   Salade Nicoise originated in Nice and continues to be a favorite of mine.  Traditionally made with greens, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, Nicoise olives and tuna dressed with a classic vinaigrette; its popularity has spread throughout the world.  The one I had on the Carlton Beach was served in a bowl all tossed together.  I love to serve it in the summer as a composed dinner salad.  But either way it is delicious and to me represents a true sense of place – in this case, the gorgeous and chic French Riviera.

Just last summer my family and I rented a villa on the Riviera and for one lunch the grandchildren and I made a Salade Nicoise. Photo below.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Nicoise Salad

 Following are the classic ingredients.  Amounts and design up to you.

Lettuce – Boston or
Hard-boiled eggs peeled and quarter
Cooked red-skinned potatoes or fingerling sliced about 1/3 inch thick
Cooked haricots verts
Grape tomatoes sliced in half
Nicoise olives
Shallots or red onion sliced thin
Canned tuna packed in oil, drained
A red wine vinaigrette made with a touch of Dijon mustard
Optional – anchovy filets

 

We ended our Riviera journey in the Grill Room on the top floor of Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.  By then we were tired of rich food – actually tired of food in general – but we couldn’t very well forgo a dining experience on the top floor of this gorgeous belle époque-era building with its incredible panoramic view of the Mediterranean. So, of course we proceeded once again to indulge ourselves in yet another memorable Michelin-starred meal. And naturally…there was butter!

It turned out to be memorable all right, but not necessarily because of the food.  For reasons long since forgotten (and perhaps even cloudy at the time) the two men got into a loud argument, which was not a totally unusual occurrence.  At one point during the disagreement they moved their boisterous “debate” outdoors where they angrily threatened to throw one another off the 8rd floor terrace.  The railings surrounding the balcony were not all that high so the threats of doing just that probably seemed entirely realistic to the heads turned in their direction.

But Nancy and I knew it wouldn’t happen.  We had gotten used to a certain volatility between these two men whose shared temperament, intelligence and self-confidence were both the reason they became close friends the first day they met, as well as why they regularly got under each other’s skin like no other person in the world.  So, we learned over time to ignore the bluster and this night we laughed our way to the ladies room to let them hash it out!  Our irreverent acceptance of what had become a staple on our trips always helped diffuse (at least for us) what probably looked like a stressful situation to onlookers.  As usual, upon returning to the table “Team Bill and Bob” were already engrossed in another deep conversation, laughing about something that only they understood, whatever argument that so passionately eclipsed our dinner long since forgotten.

 

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We didn’t know how long we would be living in Europe and wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity we were afforded, so we embarked upon an intense period of travel where I challenged myself to learn as much as I could about different countries across the continent – about their history and about their culture.

All of that education would profoundly influence my future immersion in the culinary world since history is deeply intertwined in both the culture and cuisine of a country.

Because Nancy and Bill lived in Germany, we made several trips to that country.  One dark, gloomy weekend in February we traveled to Berlin when the Eastern half of the city was still controlled by the Soviet Union and separated from the West by a concrete wall and armed soldiers.  Going into East Berlin was quite eerie and more than a little frightening, especially when we narrowly escaped a border “incident” at Checkpoint Charlie.  For some reason, Bob took issue with one of the guards over something that none of us understood.  At times he could become volatile when he perceived some kind of threat was imminent. In this situation where there was clearly an imbalance of power in favor of the border guards, Bob felt (I think) that by “standing up to them” he could put things back into a proper balance. Bill realized this tactic would do no such thing and – if anything – would only make the circumstance worse. Thankfully, he redirected Bob away from the confrontation and from what I was beginning to fear might be a night in jail for him or all of us!  Whatever Bill said to the East German Border guard diffused the situation and we all breathed a sigh of relief, got back in our car and continued (albeit nervously) our tour of East Berlin.

Nancy and I in Berlin

Though East Berlin was interesting, it was also oppressively drab and gray, just like the February weather we were experiencing there.  You could still see bombed-out shells of many buildings and because most areas were blocked off to tourists, there wasn’t a lot to see. That fact – plus our anxiety left over from the Checkpoint Charlie “incident” – made us anxious to get back to the friendlier confines of the Western side of the city.

We stayed right in the center of West Berlin at Hotel Kempinski, a glamorous hotel that overlooked Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous 18th Century neoclassical landmark built by Prussian King Frederick William II which now separated East from West.   A certain mood permeated this city that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Was it danger?  Was it anxiety?  Or maybe it was just the gloomy, rainy weather.  Whatever it was, I found the mood rather mysterious and intriguing.  And since we were told that the real life of Berliners takes place mostly at night, we decided to commit to an uncharacteristic (for us) nightclub night-out to soak in some local authenticity.   The club we picked was dimly lit, so it was difficult to see much of anything except the spotlight on the musicians whose music was some hybrid of disco and rock.  What I did know for sure was that it was loud!  Too loud!  And since I was never any good at lip reading, I could not decipher what anyone was saying. A piano bar is more my style where the music is soft and the conversation understandable.  So, I was not at all unhappy when the group decided to call it a night and go back to the hotel satisfied that we had at least witnessed a small slice of Berlin’s night life.

Good food was always a priority with the four of us when we travelled, and our Germany trips were no different.  The traditional German breakfast was substantial: a breakfast of bread rolls, marmalade, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and various cold cuts.  Because we ate late and the breakfast was so filling, we could easily go from breakfast to dinner without stopping for lunch allowing us the time to see all the sights and visit all the museums on our agenda. And since we were only staying the weekend (and Nancy – of course – had a full agenda planned) we had a lot to pack in.

Dinner was our leisurely “review-the day-and-relax” meal. We choose restaurants that served typical German food and wines rather than the “international” cuisine popular in many of the hotel restaurants.  To this day I really enjoy good German food.  They love their meats – especially roasts – as do I.  And with all good cultures come accompanying starches!  One of my favorite dishes was spaetzle – a type of egg noodle dumpling –  lightly tossed with butter, accompanied by one of their famous meat dishes.  In this case it was Weinerschnitzel, a thin, breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet.  That combination along with a glass of elegant German Riesling, one of Germany’s superstar wines, was one of my favorite meals.

kids visiting Youngclaus family in Frankfurt

Besides Berlin, we made several side-trips from Frankfurt where the Youngclaus family resided, to explore the many charming villages nearby.  One memorable adventure we had with the whole family was a day of medieval castle-hopping on the banks of the Rhine.  The medieval castles on the hilltops, the lush green vineyards and the narrow riverbanks painted a romantic picture not dissimilar to the Brothers Grimm books our children so loved.  Exploring these amazing castles while imagining the lives of the knights and princesses who had lived there turned out to be the idyllic kid trip.  They especially loved the towers – I’m sure imagining them as the home of German fairytale characters like Rapunzel, “The Maiden in the Tower”.

German cuisine also appealed to the kids.  Frankfurters and bratwurst were easy choices for both lunch and dinner.  I too enjoyed a good brat, especially one grilled with a slightly crispy skin and served in a bun with mustard and loaded with sauerkraut.  The number of different kinds of sausages made in Germany is mind-boggling – more than 1,500 different varieties we learned, so there is always plenty different kinds to choose from.  And Germans also prepare potatoes in a number of ways – fried, baked, sautéed, boiled, so that was another guaranteed hit with the kids.  Potatoes are ubiquitous – paired with almost every German dish – which was perfect for this midwestern gal who never let a fried, roasted or baked potato go to waste!

Probably the most memorable side-trip we made from Frankfurst was a very treacherous snowy drive to Strasbourg just over the border in Alsace, France.  When we began our two-and-a-half hour drive the weather was lovely.  But by the time we reached Strasbourg, the snow was so intense it was pilling up in huge drifts along the highway making our journey much slower than we anticipated.  We decided that Strasbourg would be our only stop – lunch and then back on the road to Frankfurt.  The medieval villages we intended to also visit like Colmar and Riquewihr would have to wait for another journey.

Because this is the area thought to be the homeland of my great grandfather (on my father’s side) I was always fascinated by its turbulent history and was really looking forward to this visit.  Although Alsace-Lorraine is located in France, it was not so long ago that it had been a part of Germany.  Annexed by Nazi Germany in 1949, it reverted back to French control at the end of WWII where it remains today.

 

I was excited to see it for both its history and my family’s so I was disappointed that our visit would be limited.  What was possible to see through the falling snow revealed a city with a very distinctive old-world character.  The snow fell like confetti against our faces as we walked through the quaint cobblestone streets in the ancient quarter of the city.   Finally arriving at the restaurant Nancy had reserved for lunch and happy to be out of the cold, I chose a dish that would actually become one of my favorites from anywhere in the world.  It suited my taste buds perfectly.

The dish –Choucroute Garni – is a traditional specialty of Alsace, France.  What arrived at the table was a steaming platter of sauerkraut piled high with a variety of hearty sausages, frankfurters, salted meats and cooked potatoes – a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish and perfect to be consumed in the height of a blizzard!  I had made a simple version of this dish several times for my family using a recipe that my grandfather loved – sauerkraut served with ring baloney and boiled potatoes, but this took things to a new level.

Nancy with plate of Choucroute in Strasbourg at Chez Yvonne many years later

I later learned that choucroute means “dressed sauerkraut” in French.    Although “sour cabbage” actually originated in China some two thousand+ years ago, it eventually made its way to Eastern Europe then to Germany, Alsace-Lorraine and France.  Various interpretations of the basic recipe emerged from each country, but the Alsatian version is my favorite.  In this version the sauerkraut is accompanied by a selection of meats (usually pork) and boiled potatoes.  The sauerkraut preparation can vary but always includes onions.

My Choucroute Garni recipe pretty much follows the typical Alsatian recipe except I add more onions.  The onions are sautéed to the point of being almost caramelized adding a slight sweetness to the sauerkraut.

 

Choucroute Garnie
Serves 6

2-½ pounds sauerkraut
2 ounces slab bacon, diced
2 ½ # pork back ribs (2 ribs per person)
2 cups finely sliced onions
1 clove garlic minced
2 cups chicken stock
¾ cup Riesling wine
1 bay leaf
4 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
8 juniper berries
salt & freshly ground pepper
6 knockwurst
1 pre-cooked Polish Kielbasa
boneless boiled ham (3-4 inches wide) sliced into 6 pieces ¼ inch thick
12 potatoes (approximately 2 inches in diameter)

 

Drain sauerkraut, reserving juice. Wring out well.  Set aside. Heat oven to 325 degrees

In a large casserole (at least 5 quarts) cook bacon over medium heat until golden.  Remove, draining well.  Leave fat in casserole.  Cut ribs into 6 sections – 2 ribs per section.  Brown the ribs.  Remove.

Add onions and sauté over medium heat for approximately 12 minutes – almost caramelizing.  Add garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.

Add sauerkraut.  Add stock and wine. Bring to a simmer.

Add bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves and juniper berries.  Return bacon. Add ribs, tucking into sauerkraut mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and bake for 1-½ hours.

Put knockwurst and kielbasa in with sauerkraut for last 20 minutes to heat through, ham for last 10 minutes just to warm.

Meanwhile in a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water.  Add salt and bring to a boil.  Cook the potatoes until tender when pierced.  Drain.  Cover to keep warm.

To serve, mound the hot sauerkraut in the center of hot dinner plates.  Tuck in the ribs and slices of kielbasa.  Arrange ham and knockwurst around sauerkraut with boiled potatoes.  Serve with assorted mustards and horseradish.

Note:  many different meats are used in different recipes – mostly always a form of pork

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Before we left Strasbourg for our long drive home, we visited the beautiful Cathedral of our Lady of Strasbourg – also know as Cathedrale de Notre Dame – an outstanding example of Gothic architecture and one of Strasbourg’s most famous sights.  After admiring the spectacular stained-glass windows, we cautiously made our way back to the car and began the very long journey back to Frankfurt driving through a sea of white in howling winds, dreaming of the warmth of the Youngclaus home, our smiling children and maybe a cup of hot cocoa.

Denmark with Younglaus family – Legoland

Among the highlights of my entire time spent living aboard was a 10-day journey around Denmark that we took with the whole Youngclaus family.  By this time the eight of us had become a family of sorts, bound together in a common interest of new adventures and most certainly a love for the humorous aspects of any situation. Laughter was always a priority.

Another reason I remember this trip so fondly is because both Nancy and I were relieved of our planning responsibilities since the Managing Director of Leo Burnett Denmark did it for us!  Knowing that four children were accompanying the adults, he made certain to include kid-friendly stops as well as to give us an overview of flat and windy – but breathtakingly beautiful – Denmark with all its lovely farmland and quaint seaports.

We began in Copenhagen, the capital and economic center of the country, then traveled in our red rental van (named Beep by the kids) all the way to the tip of Denmark to Skagen, a port town at the north end of Denmark where the Baltic very dramatically crashes into the North Sea.  We also made many kid-friendly stops along the way including a trip to the original Legoland and a visit to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the second oldest operating amusement park in the world.

with Robby at North Sea & Baltic Sea

Food and wine, I was learning, reveal more about a country than simply their culinary tastes.  Denmark’s food is described as Nordic which emphasizes locally grown and sustainable ingredients.  The isolated geography and fast-changing climate that all Nordic countries share given their position in the northern reaches of the European continent helps explain the similarities of their cuisine, though each country and region has its own specialty dishes.  In Denmark these often featured root vegetables which are easy to grow in Denmark’s very short summers.  Cabbage cultivation is also suited to Denmark’s climate, so you find many dishes based around this leafy plant.  And of course, Denmark is surrounded by the sea, so fish is ubiquitous; especially salmon, cod and herring.

All of these ingredients can be found in one version or another of Denmark’s signature dish, Smorrebrod.  An open-faced sandwich using traditional Danish-style rye bread as the base, the toppings vary greatly depending on the season and the region of Denmark you find yourself in.  It can be as austere as buttered bread with thin slices of cheese or cucumber, or as complicated as versions that feature multiple layers of roast beef, pickled fish or an assortment of root vegetables slathered with remoulade sauce and garnished with shredded horseradish, carrots, radishes, celery root, pickles, and always arranged in a most artistic way.   The main ingredient on my favorite Smorrebrod is one of Denmark’s gifts from the sea – the popular smoked salmon.  As New York Times writer R.W. Apple wrote about the dish; “Leave it to the Danes, those post masters of form and color, to turn a sandwich into a still life.”

 

Smoked Salmon Smorrebrod

 

A slice of rye bread
Remoulade
Smoked Salmon
Thinly sliced cucumbers
Thinly sliced radishes
Fresh dill
Capers

Sauce rémoulade
1 cup mayonnaise mixed with 2 tablespoons mixed herbs (parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon), 1 tablespoon drained capers, 2 finely diced cornichons and a few drops of anchovy essence (optional). Some recipes use chopped anchovy fillets.

Spread the remoulade on top of a slice of rye bread; artistically arrange cucumbers, radishes and fresh dill on top.  Sprinkle with capers

 

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The Youngclaus were not our own travelling companions during those years we lived in England.  But even when we were travelling with others, the lessons from Nancy’s thoughtful planning informed the increasingly detailed itineraries which I began to create for visiting family and friends.  True to my obsession with English customs and traditions, any of my England-based trips included plenty of time for my guests to enjoy a totally “English experience.”  To me that meant relaxing over a cup of tea at one of London’s tea salons after a busy day of museum-hopping; a pub dinner and a pint of ale at the conclusion of intense driving on the “wrong” side of the road through the Cotswolds; or savoring a typical English dinner in Covent Garden before going to the theatre in London’s West End.  No matter what the agenda, those experiences always combined local food and beverages with the day’s activities.

after a game of tennis with the Humphries and visiting guests Claire and Bill Stickney

After a stay with us in England, many of our visiting friends would accompany us to other European countries in the region.  I was a veteran tour guide by this time and religiously followed the Nancy Youngclaus principle of injecting quintessential food experiences into whatever town or village we were visiting.  Rome, Paris and Venice seemed to be the preferred destination of many and fortunately for me they were all cities I was delighted to return to over and over again, every visit providing me with some new discovery to add to my growing appreciation of my favorite places on earth.

 

ROME

Trevi Fountain in Rome with Younglaus’s

Rome was a city I visited with many different friends and I will never tire of all that it has to offer.  We spent several lovely long weekends there with Nancy and Bill wandering through its ancient cobblestone streets, enjoying a gelato at the Trevi Fountain and lustfully window-shopping on the Via Condotti, one of the most fashionable streets in Rome.  And it was they who introduced me to my first taste of regional Italian cuisine at Trattoria Sabatini in the Bohemian district of Trastevere overlooking the picturesque Piazza di Santa Maria.   The restaurant was famous for its Roman dishes like oxtail stew, deep fried artichokes (a Roman Jewish dish) and a favorite – Stracciatella alla Romana, an egg drop soup seasoned with parmesan cheese, nutmeg and pepper.

O’Malley’s and the Youngclauses at the Roman Ruins

We took many trips back to Rome with many different friends.  Dennis and Mary Lu O’Malley accompanied us there with Bill and Nancy, as did the new friends we met in England, Jean and Paul Barringer from Boston and Chris and Vivian Humphrey from South Africa. We enjoyed many great moments with all of them – visits to many of my favorite spots.

Barringers and the Humphries at the Trevi Fountain

Often new to them, but not to me, but I relished them just the same.  It was always a pleasure sipping on a morning cappuccino at Rome’s famous landmark café, Antico Caffe Greco on Via Condotti; or toasting friendship and travel with a pre-dinner Bellini cocktail (white peach juice and Prosecco) at Harry’s Bar (his second location) on Via Vittorio Veneto; or lunching at the rooftop restaurant of the Hassler Hotel where one could savor a bowl of pasta or a plate of beef carpaccio while simultaneously looking out across the rooftops of Rome.

Rome at night provided endless choices for dining as well.  Andrea, a small club-like restaurant just off the Via Veneto and famous for its delicious Catalan lobster salad, was a favorite.  There was simply no end to the things you could do and the food and drink you could happily consume in this great city.  And repeating them over and over again only made them more precious to me. I supposed it made them somehow feel like I was becoming a local in each of my favorite European cities.

 

PARIS

Sheila Bradley and I in front of the Louvre in Paris

Ed in Paris with Sheila’s clock

We also visited Paris with many different couples – Ed and Shelia Bradley on one occasion and another with Colleen Remsberg. The highlight with Sheila and Ed was the flea market where Sheila purchased an antique clock – not a small one – that Ed had to drag around the city for the rest of the day, perpetually looking for a place to set it down so that he could rest his weary arms.  “True devotion” we teased!

Colleen Remsberg and I having lunch at a Parisian cafe

Colleen who accompanied us on one of Bob’s business trips mostly remembers the opulent Michelin restaurant Ledoyen not so much for its food – which was amazingly delicious – but for the bill.  The three men who were dining with us decided to play a trick on Colleen and had the waiter present her the bill pretending it was her treat.  I will not forget the look on her face when she read it!  Pure shock!

Paris is just one of those cities I would visit time and time again – both during my time in England and after.  Having a latte at the Caffe Deux Margot (famous as a hangout for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso), or walking along the Seine after a pate and baguette lunch at L’Ecluse, a cozy little wine bar that my friend and mentor Leslee Reis introduced me to is always a thrill.  It is a city where I can always still find something new  – sites and restaurants and museums that I discover with each visit and can’t imagine how I missed them the first time!

 

VENICE

Barnettes and the Nahsers in Piazza San Marco, Venice

Venice was yet another city I found myself enthusiastically returning to.  Our first trip was one rainy April when we took our kids there during one of their breaks from school.  Piazza San Marco was flooded, but despite having to cross the piazza on wooden planks, Venice still presented itself as one of the world’s unique cities.  The very next year I would enjoy Piazza San Marco in the sun with good friends from back home – Ron and Mary Nahser and Joe and Charlene Barnette – enjoying a glass of Prosecco in front of the famous Caffe Florian, the oldest operating cafe in Italy…and actually the world.  Mary remembers having a most divine liver dish called Fegato alla Veneziana (Calf’s Liver Venetian style) at Ristorante Antico Martini, a clubby, old world romantic restaurant close to Teatro La Fenice, the famous Venice theater.   Even non-liver lovers sometimes enjoy this dish of thinly sliced liver with gently stewed onions.  My favorite accompaniment is with soft polenta.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Venice in every season and no matter what weather conditions– rain, sleet or sunshine – its magic always shines through.

 

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With each succeeding trip, my culinary education would continue to deepen throughout my three years in England.  And just as Bob’s transfer to London years before allowed me to begin this journey, his promotion would accelerate it.  When Leo Burnett moved him from Managing Director of London to Managing Director of all of Europe, he decided that the agency would benefit greatly from frequently getting all of the European managing directors together in one room to discuss agency strategy.  Each meeting would be held in one of the European cities where the agency had offices, and since spouses were included, my culinary education would also benefit from these conferences.  While the men sat in windowless rooms discussing agency business, I had the privilege of wandering city streets, visiting museums and – most importantly for my education – having a lunch or a coffee in one of its cafes, all the while soaking in the culture of each unique city.

Every conference had its own personality.  Organized by the Managing Director of the host city, the goal was always to conduct company business, but at the same time, to expose the conference attendees to the food, the wine and flavor of their city.  The events were usually grand affairs featuring local cuisine and always attempting to outdo the previous meeting.  We enjoyed everything from Spanish Tapas on gloriously sunny Costa del Sole in Andalusia; Wiener Schnitzel and Apple Strudel in Vienna; Foie Gras, Duck a l’Orange and Millefoie in Paris; delicious risotto at gorgeous Villa D’Este on Lake Como, Italy and good old hearty Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding in my adopted hometown of London.

One of the most memorable conferences for me was held in Italy organized by Milano managing director Paolo Volpara who – unbeknownst to me at the time – would eventually become my partner in business and lead me on the culinary adventure of my lifetime.  Although I had visited several cities in Italy before these Italian conferences – Rome, Florence, Venice, Verona as well as many of the little towns of the Italian Riviera – the regional aspects of Italian food were still new to me.  I had barely an inkling of the great diversity in all of Italy’s 20 regions.  But I was soon to get my first lesson from Paolo.

I connected with him immediately.  Not only was he smart and charming, but he also had a fantastic sense of humor, my favorite quality in both men and women.   This particular conference was held in Taormina, Sicily at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, an elegant Renaissance–inspired hotel with views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Taormina. I sat next to Paolo at dinner the first evening of the conference.  After professing my interest in all things culinary, Paolo pointed out that our menu for the evening featured many typical Sicilian dishes.  When I inquired why those were different from Italian dishes in general, what ensued was our very first regional discussion.  “Italy is not all spaghetti and meatballs,” he began.

He pointed out that one of the dishes on the menu that evening was particularly representative of the region we were in– Sicily.   All 20 regions had been influenced by different factors: geographical position, proximity to surrounding countries and certainly the history of the region (who invaded, and who stayed – all factors that helped to develop each region’s identity).  The dish he was referring to, Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe and Olives, revealed a North African influence.  Its ingredients, golden raisins, anchovies and black olives, can be found in many North African Moroccan dishes.  Sicilian cuisine, I was learning, has been greatly influenced by many different countries – from North African nations to the Middle East.  What an exotic region!  And the home of the Italian mafia as well!

All of this fascinated me, and the opportunity to combine two of my favorite things – history and food – was irresistible.

© rob warner photography 2020

Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe and Olives
Serves 4

1 ¼ pound broccoli rabe, stems cut into pieces and florets separated –steamed al dente and set aside
¼ cup olive oil
1 large shallot finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
20 oil-cured pitted black olives cut in half
3 tablespoons golden raisins
½ cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper

1-pound spaghetti cooked al dente
3 tablespoons grated parmesan

Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Sauté the shallots and the garlic for approximately 1 minute.  Add the anchovy pieces and stir into mixture. Then add the olives, raisins and parley. Sauté briefly.  Add cooked broccoli rabe, salt & pepper.  Stir until heated.  Mix with the cooked spaghetti.  Top with grated parmesan.

 

Paolo and I forming our partnership in Glencoe living room

It was shortly after these conferences that we moved back to Chicago, thus ending my three incredible years in England where I not only learned about English cuisine, but the cuisine of many other European countries.  My recipe files and my understanding of cultural diversity expanded exponentially during this time.  Travel most certainly broadened my horizons, setting me on a path that would eventually lead me to a career in the business of what I love most – the business of food and wine.  Paolo’s and my partnership would form shortly after I arrived back in Chicago.

But more than anything, my three years of living abroad fundamentally changed me and the way I thought about and related to the world. My Living in another country gives you a new perspective about all kinds of things.  It challenges old habits and entrenched belief systems by compelling you to consider other ways of doing things, other ways of thinking.  Travel does the same thing, but on an accelerated timetable.  It expands your mind in ways you never thought possible, by introducing you to things you had never imagined existed.  My years living abroad and the extensive travel that came with it was a gift that continues to enhance my life every single day.

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