One reason I love food is that it connects us with people. It’s easy to get caught up in social media, and not be truly connected to people. Facebook can sometimes be more like “Fakebook”. You don’t really know what’s going on in your friend’s lives, and it can represent a false sense of reality. It’s important to invest in and nurture the friendships that really count – The friends that you could call in the middle of the night, or that would help you move if you needed help. You know what I’m talking about!
One fun way to reconnect, especially as this weather is getting cooler outside is to open up your home and host a tea party. It seems as if home entertainment is not as prevalent these days – so it’s always nice to have this personal touch. There’s no need to spend $50+ at a fancy hotel or restaurant. Tea is growing in popularity, and it’s sugar free, calorie-free, it has antioxidants, and you can get it with or without caffeine. Plus, there is something about tea that makes people feel special – like royalty.
Below are some tips for hosting a fabulous DIY Tea Party:
– Keep it Casual: You don’t have to be perfect, have fancy formal teaware, etc. Just use what you have, have your guests bring their favorite teapots, and teas. Have a tea tasting or vote on the cutest teapot.
– Less is More: Keep the guest list smaller and more intimate to really connect. You can do an easy one-on-one tea or have up to 5 guests to keep it more intimate.
– Have fun with teapots: Ask guests to bring theirs, or you can even find some at specialty tea shops, and even thrift stores. David’s Tea has really unique accessories, like this cute sweater that goes around the teapot. Here in Chicago, Chinatown has some ADORABLE tea pots in many of the stores.
Cute sweater teapot from David’s Tea
Add tags on your teapots to describe the tea inside
– Don’t Skim the Fat: No tea party is complete without scones. If you choose to make them from scratch, and the recipe calls for cream, be sure to get cream with a high fat content (at least 40% fat) for the best flavor. Place them in a bowl and sprinkle in some fresh raspberries or blueberries for some nice presentation.
Add raspberries or blueberries for garnish and presentation
– Offer Variety: Offer a few different tea options to choose from, i.e. Black, Green, Herbal or Roobios. One of my favorite tea brands is the Republic of Tea. They have a lovely Earl Grey, and I have literally bought multiple canisters of the Limited Edition Downton Abbey flavor from World Market. It has a nice sweetness to it that makes it really pleasant. Target also has a delicious Cinnamon tea called Hot Cinnamon Sunset by Harney & Sons that tastes like a Hot Tamale Candy – you don’t even need to add any sugar. It’s very comforting and if you like cinnamon, you will LOVE this tea.
When it comes to friendship,”analog” offline connections have so much better quality than the digital world like “Fakebook” and Instagram. Hopefully these tips will spark some ideas for reconnecting with good friends to warm your heart and your soul.
For more inspirational content, check out my friend Jamie’s blog at http://www.mygr8estlove.com. It’s all about inner beauty and there are some amazing fashion tips. Enjoy!
Duck is not typically a go-to, everyday food that people eat. In fact, most people don’t even think about duck as an option, except for the holidays. This all changed for me when I attended Duck University for food bloggers, sponsored by Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana. I was excited about this opportunity because I knew very little about duck, and had certainly never cooked it.
Me outside of the Maple Leaf Farms HQ – About to head in for class!
This experience was set up like a real university. The first stop was a tour of the feed mill, where we saw how they make duck feed from scratch. They take incredible care of what goes into the feed, including protein, vitamins and minerals so that the ducks can be healthy and strong. They go through rigorous testing to make sure that the feed is safe for the ducks.
Duck Feed – Full of vitamins and minerals
We then visited a duck farm where the ducks were raised. Biosecurity is a major initiative for food safety and disease prevention, so we were instructed to wear special suits and dip our feet into a foot bath before walking near the ducks.
Dressed in our Biosecurity suits
The conditions are clean, and the ducks have plenty of room to frolic about. Maple Leaf Farms partners with over 150 local farmers to raise their ducks, which is great for the communities. The last stop on the tour was the duck processing plant, where they say it is as clean as a hospital. It was reassuring to see the USDA inspectors right there on the line.
Afterwards, we had a classroom-style session.
Did you know….
– Duck Fat is a good fat – It compares favorably to olive oil in terms of the mono-unsaturated fatty acid oleic, and the poly-unsaturated fatty acids linoleic and linolenic acids
– There are various breeds of duckwith different flavor profiles. Maple Leaf Farms raises the White Pekin duck, which is more mild and less gamey than some of the other duck varieties.
– Maple Leaf Farms is the #1 producer of duck in the U.S. with about a 75% market share, producing 13-15 Million ducks annually? (They are like Tyson Chicken, but for Duck)
– Duck is a red meat – It has a different muscle structure than chicken, and it is cooked more like steak vs. chicken. It’s not prone to salmonella, so it can be cooked to medium/medium rare for the best flavor and texture.
My favorite part of the evening was the 5-course duck dinner, where every course had duck, including the dessert (with Duck Bacon). I told chef Dale Miller that I could die right then and be happy, because the food was so creative and tasted AMAZING!
Roasted Eggplant Tomato Bisque with Duck Confit and Frizzled Leeks
Salad with Smoked Duck, Compressed Watermelon, Heirloom Tomatoes
Grilled Duck Breast with “Ramp Charmoula”, Warm Tuscan Potato Salad, Roasted Sweet Corn Crema and Seasonal Vegetables
Gruyere Popover brushed with Duck Fat
Warm Peach and Blackberry Crisp with Almond Duck Bacon Streusel & Vanilla Gelato
Erica Williams and Chef Dale Miller
A lot of people have had bad experiences with duck in the past, saying that it has tasted oily or gamey, but I did not have this experience at all – the flavor is mild, and I did not have any oily aftertaste from anything I ate. It truly depends on the breed of duck, and how it is prepared.
Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton (from Sara’s Weeknight Meals on PBS) also gave a cooking demo on how to cook duck breast, which was much easier than I had originally thought. It really is as simple as scoring the breast, cooking it with the skin down, flipping it over, and cooking it to the desired temperature. It needs to be a little bit pink for the best dining experience. Sara joined us on our tours, and it was fun to hang out with her – she’s very smart and talented, and we were honored to have her accompany us.
Me and Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton
Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton providing a cooking demo on how to cook duck breast.
In addition to this amazing experience, I was able to network with about 19 amazing food bloggers that were inspiring and a boatload of fun!
Now that you are a little bit more familiar with duck, I would highly encourage you to experiment with it. The easiest way is to try some of the pre-cooked products, like the appetizers (potstickers, spring rolls, quesadillas), or the roast half duck. Then you could move to cooking some of the other items on your own, like the duck breast, and if you are ready for the big leagues, you can roast a whole duck. If you can’t find the products in the store, you can always order online http://mapleleaffarms.com/shop and they will ship it on dry ice to your house, or you can ask the meat department manager to order it in for you.
I’m happy to say that I’m a proud graduate of Duck University, and I have a diploma to prove it!
Attending Duck University has broadened my horizons and I now consider duck to add to my current cooking routine – I hope you will too. Stay tuned for future posts with recipes and ideas.
I tasted the Sweet Riesling from Love Cork Screw wines at a dessert event and knew that I needed to feature it on my blog. This wine literally tastes like summer in a glass, and instantly transported me to memories of fabulous evenings at Ravinia, fun times with friends on rooftops, and outdoor summer concerts at Millennium Park.
Erica and Chrishon at Love Cork Screw/Taste Bud Diaries video shoot
Not only is the wine tasty, but there is an inspiring story behind it. Love Cork Screw was launched in part by Chrishon Lampley, who previously owned the popular Three Peas Art Lounge, an art and wine boutique in Chicago’s South Loop. The boutique was abruptly closed down due to an unfortunate sewage issue in the building, and after a few years, Chrishon re-emerged, launching Love Cork Screw in December 2013. The wines are now in +30 locations, and the brand is taking off. Chrishon’s marketing strategy positions this wine as not just a brand, but a lifestyle – complete with eye catching labels, a popular radio show and events, all which have helped to propel this brand to success.
Love Cork Screw Riesling and Pinot Grigio – ready for summer sipping!
The “Head Over Heels” Riesling is naturally sweet and crisp with a hint of lemon and grapefruit. This wine is versatile, and would pair well with chicken (i.e. orange chicken, chicken and pear salad) fish, cheeses and desserts.
Click here for an easy-to-make, delicious dip recipe that would travel well for a picnic and would pair quite nicely with the Riesling – it has Feta and Cream Cheese and is filled with flavor.
“Dip for the Stars” recipe from allrecipes.com Photo: allrecipes.com
The “Good Times Good Friends” Pinot Grigio is another wine that is great for Chicago summers. It is medium-bodied with apple and pear flavor notes. This wine is excellent for seafood, and would pair nicely with foods like sushi, oysters, clams, mussels, or pasta.
Chrishon’s story is inspiring, and it’s a story that I want to tell when I share the wine with friends. Check out the video below for my interview with Chrishon to hear more about her story, and after watching it, I think that you will want to tell her story too.
Below are a couple of sweet winter treats that I made over the holidays that I wanted to share:
– The first is a mint marshmallow recipe by Martha Stewart. A lot of people tell me that they didn’t know that they could make marshmallows from scratch – and you can…and they taste WAY better than anything that you have ever purchased on a grocery store shelf. I was inspired to make my own marshmallows after visiting a delicious restaurant called Hot Chocolate in Chicago. They include a homemade marshmallow in their hot chocolate creations, and I decided to give it a try. After one failed attempt at making vanilla bean marshmallows, (they ended up being too rubbery), I came across this delicious and fluffy recipe from Martha Stewart. It’s not hard, but it does require you to pay attention and move quickly. It also helps to get a candy thermometer:
I served these marshmallows at a party as a part of my hot chocolate bar and they were a hit! I highly recommend that you try them and experiment w/other flavors.
– The next item is extremely easy to make, and can serve as a nice touch for any winter party. These are chocolate spoons, which can be used for stirring into hot chocolate or coffee for an extra chocolate boost. They are incredibly easy to make, and could also be wrapped in cellophane w/a ribbon for a gift. I also included these in my hot chocolate bar. I had both milk chocolate spoons and white chocolate spoons, and drizzled the alternate color on top of each by putting the warm chocolate into a sandwich bag, and cutting a small corner of the bag to drizzle chocolate over the spoons. Very nice presentation, if I must say so myself.
I wanted to post a video about how I freeze cookie dough. I like to freeze the dough for my signature Chocolate Chip and Pecan cookies (I’m going to keep that particular recipe to myself), and other chocolate chip types of cookies (I haven’t tried this on sugar cookies).
The beauty of freezing the dough is that you don’t need to let it thaw out before you bake it. You can put the cold, frozen dough right on the cookie sheet and bake to your heart’s content.
This method is nice because you can make dozens of cookies and then bake them whenever you need them. Sometimes, I’ll cut off only 3 cookies, and make those just for myself.
Hope this is useful to you, especially for the holiday baking season.
Below is a link to a delicious recipe that I will share. Salted Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies. You can freeze this recipe too – I have done it many times:
I was inspired to create some homemade Christmas presents this year, and decided to make infused vodkas as a gift. I purchased the bottles from the Container Store (no more than $5 each), and used a mid-range vodka (Svedka) which is recommended when infusing – no need to spurge on the Belvedere when adding infused flavor. Once the vodka is finished infusing, remove the fruit, strain, and pour the vodka into the bottle w/a funnel. Decorate the bottle and wrap as a gift!
Check out my video for a demonstration:
Homemade Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka
Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 1/2 liter of vodka
– 3 apples
– 2 cinnamon sticks
I originally was planning on infusing it for 5 days, but it ended up turning into 3 weeks. The vodka was absolutely amazing and full of apple-cinnamon flavor. It was dangerous because you could literally drink it on the rocks. For an apple-cinnamon flavor, I would suggest mixing it with Sprite, Ginger Ale, or Apple Cider (hot or cold). I gave the vodka to my friend Jenny as a hostess gift for her holiday party, and I think she enjoyed it.
At this present moment, I’m infusing a Blueberry-Vanilla vodka as a gift for a party that I’m going to in 2 weeks. Vanilla doesn’t require as much time to infuse, so I removed the vanilla bean after 3 days, and I’ll let the blueberries continue to “marinate”.
Blueberry-Vanilla Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 2 cups of blueberries, sliced
– 1 vanilla bean, sliced down the middle
– 1 liter of vodka
– Shake the infused mixture from time-to-time to accelerate the infusing process
– Taste the infused mixture along the way to ensure that it does not taste too strong with the infusing agent. If it does taste too strong, add more vodka to tone down the flavor.
– If you don’t have the time to infuse, you can also present the vodka and the fruit in a bottle, and tell the recipient to open after a certain amount of time.
If you like cocktails, or if you have a friend that does, this is a great gift that can be used year-round.
I participated in a “cupcake wars” cupcake cookoff party,
and won best overall cupcake for my “Peek-a-boo Strawberry Cupcakes” – I named it peek-a-boo because there is a whole fresh strawberry right in the center, and it also had a delicious homemade vanilla-lime buttercream frosting.
Below is the link to the recipe, which I found on another foodie blog after searching for “unique cupcakes”: