Fundraisers and Flavors: The Perfect Start To Spring

There are few events as creative and expertly planned as the annual Flavors of Connecticut benefit for the American Liver Foundation. Last night, I was honored to attend the fundraiser, show support for the organization, and, oh yes – eat. And by eat I’m referring to a bewilderingly magnificent five-course meal from one of my favorite restaurants, The Willows at the Bristol Doubletree.

To back up a bit: the setup for Flavors is completely unlike your typical food-based benefit with tables doling out samples stationed around the venue. The event opened with an impressive silent auction that spanned the entire ballroom with donated items ranging from private dinner parties hosted by renowned local chefs to flight-included vacations in Italy. No small potatoes. While the auction proceeded (I didn’t win anything I bid on because I am a peasant), chefs and staff from all 30+ participating restaurants passed around plates of their signature hors douvres. From Beausoleil oysters with horseradish gelee (The Willows) to foie gras mousse (Millwrights), the selections were brilliant.

Renee Dinino emceed the event alongside the guest of honor, an incredible, hilariously charismatic ten year old named Christian Mercado who was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis (a disease where the body’s immune system attacks liver cells) early on in life. This kid is fantastic and has been involved in several fundraiser events. The night raised a whole bunch of money for the American Liver Foundation and showcased the talents of chefs around the state. What more could I ask for?

On to the food. Each restaurant served a exquisitely crafted multi course meal to a dozen lucky event guests at their dedicated table. With total creative license to embellish their own serving/cooking spaces, each of nearly three dozen restaurants personalized their areas with everything from ornate floral arrangements to ethereal canopies, cryptic skeletons (lookin’ at you, Besito) and cork-filled hurricanes.

The seating arrangement at The Willows strayed from the mold of circular banquet tables and instead placed guests at a long, rustic farm table adorned with gorgeous wildflowers, greenery and an edible gardenscape that made my heart ache for spring. And, not to brag on their behalf, but they won first place in the table décor competition that concluded the event!

Back to the food. Easing us in to what would surely be a culinary adventure, Executive Chef Leo Bushey grabbed our attention with an amuse bouche of pork belly with maple crème and candied pistachios… basically tastebud teasing pork candy. We continued with a salt cured diver sea scallop complemented by radish and honeycomb (an essential to balance the salt) presented on individual blocks of pink sea salt. Fancy! The dish was beautifully paired with a 2011 De Ladoucette Pouilly-Fume Loire Valley, selected by Director of Food & Beverage Aaron O’Connor. Our next course was probably my favorite, if not in the top three – sumptuously rich mushroom ravioli in porcini foam topped with lingonberry, paired with 2010 Louis Jadot Pommard Cote de Beaune.

Moving on to the meatier side of things, the buttermilk poached capon breast was otherworldly with its port gelee, beet crema and, oh yes, foie gras torchon. A 2008 Spanish rioja paired perfectly… And what’s an early spring meal without a spring lamb rack? Especially with horseradish bauphinoise, butter poached pea puree and a 2009 Sette Vigne. So, so tender.

So, that happened. And so did the white chocolate macadamia tarte with banana mouse and a 2007 Californian brut rose. As far as I can tell, there’s no lovelier way to end a meal than with a sweet confection and some bubbly.

So, now that you’re drooling all over yourself, pay a visit to The Willows restaurant one of these days. It’s definitely an experience in the very best sense of the word. The seasonal fare is always a delight and I’ve had the pleasure of working with the staff on a marketing event this past summer and they are just a joy. Thanks to Amy, Aaron, Leo and the team for having me at their table! Truly a remarkable start to April.

Oh and….bread! In flowerpots!

The Willows is located in the Hilton Doubletree at 42 Century Drive in Bristol. You can view their whole dinner menu here. Enjoy!

Lucky Taco Giveaway (!!!!)

Know what’s great? Tacos. Know what’s also great? Hartford.

Now that that’s cleared up, try your  luck and enter my giveaway for some tasty treats at Hartford’s awesome Lucky Taco truck.

Although I never rarely do blog giveaways, I was approached by the fine folks at Lucky Taco to give away a package of three free lunches at their food truck along with a selection of Muir Glen products. GUYS, TACOS! So I couldn’t decline because, tacos.

Chefs Dave and Erin Emmons of Lucky Taco Truck, voted Hartford’s Best Food Truck in 2013, have created a number of recipes using Muir Glen Organic Tomatoes and it’s time for you to follow their lead. The tomatoes are great, and, as a bonus, thrown in the giveaway with some other Muir Glen products.

If you’re unfamiliar with the truck’s offerings, they’ve got everything from funky twists on comforting Tex-Mex tacos to inventive ‘around the world’ variations.

ENTER TO WIN BY LEAVING A BLOG COMMENT: You must tell me 1) your favorite Lucky Taco on the menu OR 2) why tacos are the best food ever. 

Photo courtesy of Nick Caito for The Hartford Courant

My highlights:

-Island jerk pork: Slow roasted pork with spicy, truck made jerk seasoning and mango pico de gallo

-Shaved rib eye steak grilled with peppers, onions, and mild white cheddar

-Marinated portobella fajita

-Thai chicken taco with red curry peanut sauce topped with carrot, cabbage and cilantro slaw.

Take a look at the rest

Good luck!

Who says you can’t play with your food?

Ok, seriously, have you guys seen this?

Photographers Create The Tiniest of Dramas On Your Dinner.

Definitely the best part of the new year so far.

Here’s a link to the whole gallery.

I leave you with this:

And this…

 

Small Plates, Big Flavor

Since I know you’re looking for some new reading material to ring in the new year, I thought I’d help you out with the most shameless of all the shameless plugs.

That said, check out my most recent column for Seasons Magazine! From traditional Spanish tapas to upscale small plates, the article highlights some of the best spots around greater Hartford – Vinted, Costa Del Sol and Tapas. Here’s the link.

Fall Flavors With An Italian Twist – Spotlight on Billy Grant

Yeah ok, it’s been some time since I’ve blogged. Rest assured, I’ve been writing all along.

Let’s face it. November is chilly as hell. We all need a little comfort and the best form is food.

Take a look at the column I wrote for Seasons Magazine - Fall Flavors With An Italian Twist, focusing on restauranteur Billy Grant and his West Hartford and Glastonbury eateries. Here’s the link.

 

Beyond the interview, Grant was also nice enough to provide a few recipes for dishes you can make at home – including my personal favorite, lamb meatballs with goat cheese, pine nuts, grappa soaked raisins, and mint. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe the recipe for tiny penne with sausage, charred brussel sprouts, pecorino and cracked pepper will. You can find these at the end of the article.

Stay tuned for the winter column, all about upscale small plates and tapas-style dining. I’ll post it when the issue is published.

Seasons Magazine is a quarterly publication that distributes to readers in West Hartford, Glastonbury, Farmington Valley, and the Litchfield Hills.

 

Operation Wedding Cake

I like to think that each of us has at least one crazy, brilliant friend who somehow makes everything seem to work out seamlessly.

Like when she recruits you into helping create her wedding cake the night before the ceremony.

Maybe that’s just me.

A couple weeks ago, I flew out to Cleveland to celebrate the marriage of one of my oldest friends. Emily (yes, there’s two of us) and I went to elementary/middle/high school together but the most hilariously memorable times were working together in a chocolatier at age 17, then thinking we could recreate the beautifully crafted truffles at home. We couldn’t. But we did make a huge mess with our sad attempts at ganache.

In the end, I kept making my sad, mishapen confections while Em went off to the Culinary Institute of America to actually focus on baking and pastry.

And here we are today.
So, ten years later, when Em told me that we’d be making and assembling a lovely wedding croquembouche when I was in town for the weekend, I didn’t really bat an eye. I would, of course, be on ganache duty…we had to fill 900 cream puffs, after all.

What I didn’t expect was a room full of friends, relatives, and bridal party in an assembly line flurry of activity – chopping pounds and pounds of chocolate, melting it for ganache, filling creampuffs, making caramel (for the glue that holds all creampuffs together in its glorious tower), and piping chocolate tuxedos onto hundreds of strawberries. With plenty of pizza and wine in the background, of course.

With all the chaos, loved ones and chocolate in one place, it was pure magic.

At least in my mind, this is everything a wedding weekend should be. Informally gathering all of your favorite people in one place and creating magnificent desserts in the process.

As you can see, though my shoddy instagram photos don’t do it justice, everything turned out beautifully.

And to think, my skills in the kitchen have improved in the last decade! Who knew?
So thank you, my dear friend and beautiful bride, for one hell of a sweet time.