Three years ago, I met Tony… As a typical “we met in college” story goes, we met at Evanston’s second classiest establishment, The Deuce, and I was inebriated beyond recollection.
In the four years that I had gone to Northwestern I had never met nor heard of Tony. I did, however, see him frequently on my way to class during my senior year and thought to myself, “that boy is so cute.” A very rare finding at NU. Maybe it was the alcohol or my love life at the time, which was non-existent, but I was determined to meet him.
I saw him a few nights before at Evanston’s most notorious bar, “The Keg,” and my best friend, Regan, suggested that maybe it wasn’t the best line to introduce yourself as, “Hi, I’m Claire and we sometimes make awkward eye contact on our way to class,” but as I said, I was determined and that’s exactly what I did the second night I saw him out at The Deuce. I introduced myself and Tony just stared blankly at me; apparently Tony had no idea what I was referring to and just thought I was a drunk girl at the bar… Which I later confirmed by asking him a total of ten times throughout our conversation if he remembered my name or not. Smoooooth.
I’m told we chatted about my food blog, The Cellar, hockey, running, traveling, and dogs among other things. At the end of the night as sober Tony tried to end his night early as the designated driver, he asked if I wanted to go back to Evanston, which I misinterpreted as him trying to make a pass and said, “Um, no! But if you want, you can ask me for my number and maybe we can go out sometime…”
Surprisingly, Tony did ask me for my number, but the following morning I could only recall giving my number to “the really cute guy,” but couldn’t remember if his name was Mark or not… The start to every good love story!
Two days passed before Tony texted me telling me he “hoped I remembered Tony from the Deuce,” and then asked to go to coffee the following day. We met at Peet’s Coffee, where we could not stop talking and I learned that he has the most beautiful green eyes (when they’re actually open), was getting a puppy within the week, was Lebanese and Hungarian, spoke French fluently, played hockey, loved Rick Ross (but that was more of a negative), was a huge foodie, and had plans to travel the world… Our conversation was cut short because he had a hockey game and I had to develop some film, but he asked to take me to dinner the next night at The Cellar, since apparently I told him I had never gone and really wanted to the night we met…
After he dropped me off at my photography class, I walked in the building and then turned around and ran to the library as fast as I could so I could tell my best friend that I was in love and found “The One…” and the rest is history!
I am so thankful for you, Tony! You are my best friend, my biggest supporter, my adventure partner, and the greatest fiancé I could ever ask for. You make me comfortable enough to be me, 100% of the time. You love me unconditionally and have given me the opportunity to chase my dreams and travel the world. You’re the only person crazy enough to put up with my crazy. I love you and cannot wait for the rest of our adventures!
So I made you meatballs, the first dinner I made you in your dirty college apartment, but this time I didn’t double the garlic.
Baked Lamb and Oregano Meatballs recipe by Donna Hay:
½ cup (80 grams) fine burghul
¾ cup (185 milliliters) boiling water
1 kilogram lamb mince
2 cups oregano leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon caster (superfine) sugar
⅓ cup (80 millilitres) pomegranate molasses or balsamic glaze
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1½ tablespoons harissa paste
2¼ cups (700 grams) tomato purée (passata)
2 cups (200 grams) grated mozzarella
¼ cup (20 grams) finely grated pecorino
½ cup oregano leaves, extra
- Preheat oven to 250°C (500°F). Place the burghul and water in a large bowl and mix to combine. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to stand for 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender.
- Add the mince, eggs, oregano, cumin, 2 teaspoons of the sugar, the pomegranate molasses, salt and pepper and mix well to combine. Using wet hands, roll 2 tablespoons at a time into balls.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over high heat. Cook the meatballs, in batches, turning frequently, for 5–7 minutes or until browned. Place in a 2.5-litre ovenproof dish and set aside.
- Heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute or until lightly golden. Add the harissa, purée, remaining sugar, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Bring to the boil and cook for 5–7 minutes or until slightly reduced.
- Pour the sauce into the dish over the meatballs and top with the mozzarella and pecorino.
- Bake for 10–12 minutes, top with the extra oregano leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes or until golden. Serves 4–6.
On our very first trip to Amsterdam, Tony and I stumbled upon this little Thai restaurant across the street from the AirBNB we were staying in. We walked inside and there were paintings all over the walls of mouths and distorted cartoon faces with big ears and the tables were decorated with white business shirts and ties. It was all very strange, but we were starving and didn’t know where else to go so we took a seat at an open table.
They gave us our menus and served us these shrimp chips with peanut sauce to snack on while we reviewed the menu. After staring at the menu for a solid fifteen minutes, we still were only able to decipher about five of the dishes because everything on the menu was so unlike the typical Thai restaurants we frequented in Chicago… and those shrimp chips were so amazing that I couldn’t really focus on anything else. We ordered some Thai beer, Tom Kha Kai Soup, Pad Thai, and took our chances on a few other dishes that I can’t remember for the life of me.
After a few moments, they served us our beer in these trippy little slanted glasses so that every time you put down your glass you thought it was going to fall over. Not very conducive for our state of mind. Then they brought out our Tom Kha Kai soup, and without waiting a single second, I took my first spoonful and it was SCALDING HOT. Like, so hot that it was burning the insides of my mouth and tongue and I couldn’t swallow it and in the exact same moment I realized exactly how hot my soup was, a fellow patron was walking into the restaurant, locked eye contact with me, and had to witness as I was literally drooling and spitting out the soup like a dog. He just started laughing at me and I would have too because it was kind of a funny situation, but I was too busy with chugging beer to cool down my mouth. Anyway, after letting the soup cool down for a few moments, I was able to taste the lovely concoction of spices, sweetness, and sourness that is Tom Kha Kai soup and it was delicious.
After devouring the rest of our meal, they placed two small plates with a small, white, cylindrical mound in the middle of the plate. Tony thought it was some kind of marshmallow-gift from the chef since we ate so much, but as he popped it in his mouth to eat, the waiter came by with a tea kettle of hot water and poured it over my plate and the “marshmallow” unraveled and revealed itself as a small, damp towel to clean your hands with… Whoops.
Safe to say, between spitting out the soup and the towel incident, Tony and I were utterly embarrassed and we refuse to show our faces at that restaurant again. Thankfully, you can find Thai food all over Amsterdam and they always have Tom Kha Kai on the menu! Since Italy lacks any kind of food diversity, I decided to recreate the soup at home for a nice, warm dinner on a chilly Sunday night! It’s easy to make and can easily be adjusted to meet your palate!
Tom Kha Kai Soup by The Bite-Sized Baker:
2 quarts chicken broth
4 lemongrass stalks, smashed and cut into 1” pieces
12 kaffir leaves or ½ cup lime juice and 2 tablespoons lime zest
3-inch piece of galangal or ginger
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
16-ounces oyster or button mushrooms, sliced
3 13.5-ounce cans full-fat coconut milk
½ cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
5 Thai chilies, sliced
Cilantro, for garnish
Lime wedges, for garnish
Chili sauce, for garnish
- To make the soup, in a very large stockpot, combine broth, lemongrass, kaffir leaves, and galangal and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 10 minutes until flavors have melded.
- Using a fine-mesh strainer, transfer broth to a new stockpot and discard solids. On low heat, add the chicken and poach for 15-20 minutes, until chicken has cooked through. Add mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms are tender. Mix in coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, and Thai chilies. Continue cooking for five more minutes until flavors have melded. Taste and add more fish sauce, sugar, and chilies as desired.
- Serve with freshly chopped cilantro, extra lime wedges, and chili sauce.
In Europe, you see a lot of dogs running or going about their day independently from their owners. Whether they’re a yappy little Jack Russell Terrier and Border Terrier running up and down the hills of Cinque Terre and greeting everyone who visits, a watchful Rhodesian Ridgeback keeping post at his owner’s frame shop in Florence, or a curious Beagle showing visitors the way into town in the Alps. It should come as no surprise that I am a huge dog person and I am definitely NOT one of those people who are able to let my dog run wild and free.
My family sometimes jokes that Tony and I are like that couple from Best in Show, you know, with the Weimaraner and Busy Bee? Overbearing, protective, and generally just crazy about their dog? At first, I laughed with them and didn’t take it too personally, but then at some point I realized that in the past year every time I’ve gone shopping Louie has accompanied me in the dressing room and has joined me at the nail or hair salon because I can’t bear to be away from him for over an hour… Maybe they had a point. Maybe I needed to slacken the leash a little, let Louie be a real dog versus my furry best friend/child?
We take Louie to CrossFit with us every morning, mostly so I don’t have to run the two miles home by myself, but also because it gives him the opportunity to be a dog and explore on his own. The gym is in an enclosed area with a large parking lot and a big field so I’m never too concerned about his whereabouts, but I always try to keep a watchful eye like any responsible parent!
On this particular morning, there were a few men working on the facilities outside and Louie was showing off as usual so I wasn’t acutely aware of his location at all times. I was recuperating from a brutal workout when I realized I hadn’t seen Louie run past for a while so I peeled myself up off the ground and proceeded to ask the men outside if they had seen Louie. They pointed to the other end of the building so I casually jogged over, called his name, but I didn’t see him. I ran back to the gym and ran on to the field to see if maybe I missed him, but nothing. Then a friend mentioned she saw him running in the parking lot and that’s when I began to panic.
While it is an enclosed area, there is a gate large enough for cars to get in and out and just adjacent to the main road to access the gym is a large highway. At this point, I was sprinting down the road and frantically yelling his name like a distraught parent looking for their child who got lost in the grocery store. It doesn’t help that “lui” also means “he” in Italian. I asked a random passerby if he had seen a dog, “Hai visto un cane?” but he hadn’t seen anything. And then off in the distance I saw two gentlemen with dogs, but I knew by the dogs’ coloring neither of them were Louie, but if I know my dog, I knew he could have easily gotten distracted and wanted to play with the other dogs… He’s so social.
I ran across the field toward the men to ask if they’d seen a dog and before I could finish my sentence, I heard Louie’s little jingle as he jauntily strutted towards me upon realizing the look of terror of my face. He knew he was in trouble and slowly walked over towards me, but I couldn’t even yell at him for running away because in that moment I was just so thankful he hadn’t been hit by a car or taken home by a kind stranger. He’s very convincing.
Like most of my stories, this story might not have the plot line to be the next “blockbuster” movie, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that I am not a carefree person. I am destined to be that overbearing mother that monitors her children’s whereabouts on applications that I’ve secretly installed on their phones (maybe I’ll just avoid the anxiety and strap on a child-leash and call it a day), checks their Halloween candy for razor blades and poison, and forces them to stay at the table until they eat their entire dinner– basically the mom who everyone despises. But you know what, I’m doing it because I love you. Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not pregnant, I’m just on a rant.
While this brownie recipe has absolutely NOTHING to do with this novella (except for the fact that I was introduced to it in the Alps where I met the curious Beagle and Louie also slept in bed with us nightly, despite house rules that he remained out of the bedroom), it is life changing. So you might have to measure out a few more ingredients and wash two more bowls than you normally would with a boxed mix brownie (which used to reign, in my opinion), but it is completely worth it!
I tried these brownies after one particularly dreadful day on the slopes (I was crying after the first run because it was so icy and rocky) and they were amazing… and I obviously ate my feelings and devoured two within ten minutes. The brownies were rich in chocolate flavor, dense, fudgey, and had a shiny, crackly little top. Fortunately, our host was more than willing to share his recipe with me so I could recreate it at home and now I get to share it with you!
Dark Chocolate Brownies recipe slightly adapted by The Bite-Sized Baker:
350 grams (~1½ cups) unsalted butter
300 grams (10.5 ounces) dark chocolate
400 grams (~1¾ cups) granulated sugar
50 grams (~¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsweetened cocoa powder
150 grams (~1¼ cups) all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
- To make the brownies, preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a 9×13” pan with parchment paper.
- In a double boiler, melt the dark chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and transfer mixture to the bowl of an electric stand mixer. While the mixture is still very warm, add sugar and beat for 2-3 minutes until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add the eggs and beat for an additional 2-3 minutes.
- In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the chocolate-butter mixture on low speed until the batter looks thick, shiny, and well incorporated.
- Spread the batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack, dust with confectioners’ sugar, and cut into squares.
Remember when I used to do “Monday Bites…?!” Me neither.
Thoughts, inquiries, and photos from The Bite-Sized Baker… about our holiday vacation.
I’m back in Italy and it’s slightly bittersweet; I’m delighted to cuddle with Louie every morning and eat a phenomenal panini for 5 euros, but my heart aches for my family back in California.
This was one of the most amazing years of my life and our holiday vacation was no exception; starting with our snowboarding trip in the Alps with our two best friends, Chelsea and Hunter (where they got engaged!), our trip to California, where we spent much needed time with my family and best friends, and a brief trip to Chicago, where we got to check in with our college friends and some of Tony’s family.
Oh, and Tony and I got ENGAGED! On Christmas Eve morning, Tony had an arch delivered to my house without my knowledge and while I was getting ready that evening, my dad and Tony decorated the backyard with candles and lights. My sisters asked me to grab a bottle of Prosecco from the cooler and when I walked outside, Tony turned on all the lights and proposed! It was very sweet and romantic and thankfully, my entire family was there to capture the moment!
Our holiday was a bit magical and I’m just so grateful that I was able to celebrate with all my loved ones at a “surprise” engagement party that weekend that my sisters, Judith (my future mother-in-law ;)), and Tony organized. Judith rented out a super cute space in downtown Los Gatos called The Lexington House, where the owners worked with my sisters to create a customized menu of various appetizers and themed drinks and even recommended a photographer so we could enjoy and capture the night without constantly whipping out our own cameras… The only downside is Tony and I don’t have a SINGLE photo together so I’m hoping the photographer has some good ones when we finally get to see them!
Our family and friends flew in from all over the United States to celebrate with us and it was truly the best engagement party I could ever ask for and the best part is, I didn’t have to plan a thing! Except for what I was wearing, of course!
Thank you to all of our friends and family that were able to celebrate with us! You made our holiday AMAZING! Now I’m homesick, dreaming, and pinning all things wedding… Also, since I’m sappy and our anniversary is coming up, I already wrote a
little post about how Tony and I met so there’s that… I know you’re looking forward to it. There will also be some food in the mix, eventually.
For Christmas dinner, my family and I are planning an Italian feast complete with apertivo, pear and pecorino toretlloni, pumpkin risotto, bistecca, white beans, roasted veggies, budino, and tiramisu! Words cannot express how excited I am to see my family… and to serve them this dinner!
As much as I would love to pretend that I have a loud Italian grandmother to teach my sisters and I how to make pasta from scratch, I don’t… I’m also not really enthused about the idea of buying a pasta roller that I’ll most likely use once. Sooo we’re ordering fresh sheets of pasta from one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the area, La Villa, to make our toretlloni.
The last thing I wanted to worry about on Christmas day was ruining one of my favorite dishes and not having a back-up plan so I thought it would be in my best interest to do a “test run” of Pumpkin Tortelloni while I was in Florence.
I made the pumpkin filling the day before to save some time and used a great picture tutorial from the Williams Sonoma blog to assemble the toretlloni. I know… I’m in Italy and I’m using Williams Sonoma as a reference, but it is an excellent guide for beginners! The first time I tried to assemble the toretlloni, I made the mistake of buying cheap store-bought pasta sheets and as soon as I started making little triangles the pasta started breaking. I got annoyed, had a little hissy fit, and I was about to call it a loss and throw everything away… But then I remembered, “I have to do this for Christmas! I must persevere.”
The following day I went to the fresh pasta vendor at the Mercato Centrale and explained (in Italian, might I add!) that I wanted to make tortelli at home and walked away with some fresh, quality pasta sheets that don’t break when you fold them! The Williams Sonoma blog was super helpful, but of course, there were still a few mishaps… How are you supposed to learned otherwise?!
On my first sheet of pasta, I didn’t use a ruler so all of my squares looked more like rectangles and didn’t create even triangles, which was fine because I jut cut off the excess dough… But still, not perfect. The second sheet of pasta I used a ruler and made 2”x2” squares, which were a bit too small for my liking and I got overzealous with the pumpkin filling and I couldn’t seal my edges completely. But alas, on the third sheet of pasta I made 3”x3” squares, I only put two teaspoons of filling in the center, and I was able to seal my edges and fold over my corners. Success! Tortelloni for the win!
The pumpkin filling is a great balance of sweetness and acidity from the vinegar and honey and then it’s coated in a simple brown butter sauce and topped with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds for a little extra crunch and nuttiness. Seasonal, cozy, and delicious.
Pumpkin Tortelloni with Sage and Pumpkin Seeds from Williams Sonoma:
20 ounces/625 grams of fresh pasta sheets (1/16-inch/2 millimeters)
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) (3 ounces/90 grams) unsalted butter
2 ¼ pound (1 kg) Cinderella or other heirloom pumpkin or butternut squash, halved, seeded and stringy fibers removed (seeds reserved)
Olive oil for drizzling
Kosher salt, to taste
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 ½ cups (6 ounces/185 grams) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon honey (optional)
Semolina flour for dusting
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
½ teaspoon olive oil
Kosher salt, to taste
5 tablespoons (2 ½ ounces/75 grams) unsalted butter
6 fresh sage leaves, finely slivered
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for finishing
- Preheat an oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, cook, stirring constantly, until the butter becomes a light tan color. Smell the butter; it should have a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- To make the filling, cut the pumpkin in half, drizzle with olive oil and season liberally with kosher salt. Place the pumpkin, cut side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Roast the pumpkin until fully tender when pierced with a knife, 45 to 60 minutes. The pumpkin should be soft to the touch but not mushy or deflated. Scoop out the flesh of the pumpkin and discard the rind. Add the warm pumpkin to a blender along with the brown butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and vinegar. Puree until smooth and season to taste with salt. The puree should have a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. If the pumpkin lacks sweetness and depth of flavor, add the honey to balance the flavor. Spoon the puree into a bowl and fold in the cheese. You should have about 3 ½ cups (28 fl. oz./875 ml) filling. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator to cool.
- Dust 2 baking sheets with semolina flour and set aside.
- To make the tortelloni, using a straight wheel cutter or sharp knife and a ruler, cut the dough into 2 ¾-inch (7-cm) squares. Using a piping bag or spoon, place 2 teaspoon of filling into the middle of each square. Fold the pasta in half so the opposite corners meet, forming a triangle. Use a spritz of water from a spray bottle to help seal it if necessary. Gently press out the air around the filling by running your fingers from the tip of the triangle downward. With your thumbs along the base of the triangle and your index fingers halfway down each side of the triangle, gently pinch your index fingers and thumbs together and rotate your left index finger to fit under the base of the triangle. Wrap the corners around your left index and middle fingers and pinch them together to seal. You should have a small gap between the filling and the pinched dough, like a ring.
- Working quickly, place the tortelloni on the prepared baking sheets, spaced apart, until ready to cook. Don’t let the tortelloni touch each other or they may stick together. Repeat until you run out of dough or filling. You should have 30 to 40 pieces.
- Preheat an oven to 350°F (180°C). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- In a small bowl, stir together the pumpkin seeds with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 11 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Drop the pasta into the boiling water. Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch (30-cm) sauté pan over high heat. Add ¼ cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) of the seasoned pasta water and the butter and bring to a simmer. Once the pasta is cooked 80 percent through, until almost al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes, add it to the pan along with the sage and swirl until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Reserve the pasta water. If needed, add a few more tablespoons of pasta water to keep a saucy consistency and continue cooking until the pasta is tender, about 90 seconds. Season with salt.
- To serve, divide the pasta and sauce between 4 plates. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and the toasted pumpkin seeds and serve immediately. Serves 4.