Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interstate Pigs and Bean & Leek Soup with Caramelized Radish

Interstate pigs and bean soup?   This might sound a little crazy, but there's a connection, I promise.

I've been having recurring thoughts about pigs lately, spurred by two totally unrelated signs that began with my trip to Charleston this past weekend.  

Let me explain.

We were driving, as you do on road trips.    Staring aimlessly out the window.    Kind of tuning out.  I saw a truck ahead of us.    Now, you see a lot of trucks when driving, really not that unusual.   But this truck was special.   It had special cargo.  

I spotted little tails poking out the side of the truck as we passed.   Piglet tails.  Sweet, soft, tiny, curled up little pink pig tails.   Awwww.  That's when it dawned on me.   These pigs were going somewhere.   It wasn't just another road trip for them.  

I grew sad as I do when I think about animals that we eat.  It is why I regularly go back and forth between being a vegetarian and not.    The more I read and learn about how animals are 'produced' in this country, I am sickened by the conditions and the fact that this all ends up in our bodies.      Don't get me wrong, I do eat meat occasionally and certainly don't judge anyone else who does.  I've just been thinking more about what I consume, where it comes from and the effect that it has on my health.

Those little pigs heading to their next stop in the production process were nestled in my memory.  I settled back into vacation mode and ordered the pork ribs for dinner that night.   And they were amazing.   And I temporarily forgot all about the little pigs piled up in the back of the truck.

Until yesterday morning.    The pigs reappeared.    Back on the interstate again, except this time in a local news story about five pigs who got loose from a truck and ended up in the middle of morning commute traffic.      And while admittedly, some of the comments in the article are pretty darn hilarious, the whole thing just makes me sad.  
I guess the point of all this is that seeing these pigs triggered something in me that makes me want to re-examine my personal position.     I don't know if this will be fleeting or a more solid commitment, but for the moment I'm going to take a little break from meat while I reconcile my feelings.

Long story short, I made bean and leek soup for dinner last night and instead of flavoring it with bacon, I got creative with my seasonings and CSA box and came up with this version instead.  The spice mixture, containing natural hickory smoke and ginger, replicated the smoky flavor of the pork.  The caramelization of the radish added a little sweetness and a tiny bit of crunch.  A wonderful bacon substitute garnish.  The salted butter also helps to round out the flavor in this soup.

I didn't miss the bacon at all.

White Bean and Leek Soup with Caramelized Radishes


For the Soup
1 pound dried white beans
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salted butter
3 leeks, cleaned, halved and sliced thinly
3 celery heart stacks, diced
48 ounces low sodium chicken broth
1/2 to 1 teaspoon pork chop seasoning (I used Penzey's)
sea salt and pepper to taste

For the Radishes
1 small bunch of radishes, 7 - 10, large dice
2 teaspoons salted butter
sea salt and pepper to taste


Prepare beans using overnight or quick method as directed on the package.   Rinse thoroughly and set aside.

Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 2 teaspoons salted butter on medium low heat in large soup pot.     Add sliced leaks and celery hearts.   Saute vegetables until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes on medium low heat.   Add 1/2 teaspoon pork chop seasoning to vegetables and mix for a minute or two until combined.

Add beans back into soup pot.    Add the chicken broth to bean and vegetable mixture.    Simmer for an hour until flavors are fully combined.  

Meanwhile, prepare radishes to finish prior to serving soup.    Melt 2 teaspoons salted butter in small saute pan on medium heat.     Add diced radishes and saute on medium low for about five minutes.   Increase heat to medium and saute until radishes begin to caramelize and form a dark crust, about another five to ten minutes.   Salt and pepper to taste.  Set aside.   (Radishes are best served just out of the pan as they retain a little crunch.)

After about an hour, blend soup with immersion blender or blender until smooth.   Season with salt and pepper, as needed.

Pour soup into serving bowls and top with radish garnish.

Heading back to Charleston next with less deep thoughts and more on our weekend away!

Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.   Do you think consciously about where your food comes from and how it is produced?  If you do, how does it impact your eating habits?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Walk, Shop, Eat Some More and Sleep

I warned John prior to our trip that in addition to eating in Charleston, the shopping isn't bad either.   Lucky me, I can get away with a little bit of selfish indulgence on birthday weekends.

With time to kill post cooking class and pre check in, we wandered down to the old city market area.   I rarely buy anything, but like to poke around and do a little people watching.   I love the structure of the market with the white post beams and iron lighting.   The seagrass weaving artisans are always fun to watch too.

Apparently that's a blow fish in the photo above.   John says they actually look like that, but I'm not convinced that have that evil smile naturally.  

My favorite stop outside of the market was a gorgeous little spice shop.    I have a slight addiction to spice mixes lately after discovering that Penzey's moved to town.    But that's another story...

Left the market area and headed home to Church Street to check in.    Was feeling pretty icky from the sun and food and looking forward to relaxing a bit on the porch before dinner.

We stayed at 15 Church Street in an extremely charming home down by the waterfront park.    Annelise greeted us at the front door and walked us through front hall to the wrap around porch where she gave us a historical overview of Charleston and their beautiful home.   John and I stayed in the carriage house with our own separate entrance.    After getting ready for dinner we went back out to the porch to meet our fellow guests (and puppy) and enjoy some wine, music and conversation.  

(Truth be told, I was feeling a little anxious at the time as we were about to miss the UNC v. Marquette game.    I went to Marquette and John finished his residency at UNC so it was bound to be an exciting game with a good outcome either way.   (I felt a little better that we missed it when we heard the half time score was something like 40 to 15.  Yikes.   Was expecting a little more of a fight.))

I was super excited about dinner though.   We were dining at Husk, a relatively new restaurant in Charleston with a James Beard award winning chef at the helm.   They are all about the local ingredients.   Yup, I'm a bit of a food nerd.  

Ignore the horrendous pictures above, I wanted to give you an idea because that simple looking pork rib dish in the lower left corner was seriously the best thing I've ever had.    Charred, fatty, smoky, sweet meaty heaven.    I am seriously considering going vegetarian again after that dish because I don't think it will ever get better.

Go to Husk if you are in Charleston.   Reserve in advance as its pretty popular.   Ask for a table in one of the smaller rooms upstairs.    Swing by the bar in the building next door for a drink before or after.   Its very charming.   And the service is some of the best we've ever had.     Love this place.

After dinner, the short walk home through the gas lamp lit streets to our cozy little room.    Life is good.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Charleston Cooks: Cooking Class

I'm a sucker for a good culinary store.    I love gadgets, especially brightly colored ones.   Attach a cooking school to a kitchen shop and I'm in a little bit of heaven.

On my last visit to Charleston with my mom several years ago, we spent time wandering around the Charleston Cooks shop on East Bay, vowing to return and sign up for one of the many classes on our next visit.   We never got around to doing it together, but luckily I have a husband who is a really good sport and actually enjoys cooking.   We signed up for the first class after our arrival in Charleston, with an emphasis on low country cooking.

After eating our "first" lunch at Slightly North of Broad, which is part of the Maverick Kitchens Group that also owns Charleston Cooks, we popped across the street to the shop next door and browsed until it was time to start.

Our class was demonstration style and we were seated in rows in front of the bright and roomy kitchen.   I would have preferred to join in the cooking but we didn't time our visit right for one of the participatory classes they offer.  The chef instructor and her team kept it fun though, very engaging and informative.

We learned about the rice of Charleston, pigs, okra and all kinds of other tidbits about low country cooking.   Since eating is one of my favorite things to do in Charleston, it was interesting to learn more about its history in the region.   Also picked up a great onion cutting technique that I'm looking forward to practicing at home.  

The end result of our roughly two hours was a tasting of the dishes prepared during class.    We had Pecan Encrusted Catfish, Carolina Aromatic Rice and Vegetable Saute and a Chocolate Chess Pie.  All served with a glass of Chardonnay which paired really well with the buttery flavors in the fish and rice.   

My first experience with both catfish and chess pie and loved them both!    As soon as I can get some really fresh corn and okra in my CSA box, the rice dish will also definitely be making an appearance on the blog.    Good stuff.

Highly recommend making a stop here while you are in Charleston (but might skip lunch first!)   A list of classes is located here and you can sign up on line.  

After class we wandered back out to the shop and picked up a few new gadgets with our class discount for our home kitchen.    I love cooking with things I've picked up during my travels.

The sun was back out in full force at this point, so we walked around for awhile, attempting to burn off some calories from our double lunches before stopping back at the B&B to check in and begin the next part of our adventure.

Ever attend a cooking class while traveling?    Did it enhance your travel experience?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Charleston, South Carolina

"We should do this more often.   Get away."

"Long weekends are the best.    Just enough to get us out of the daily routine, but not long enough to exhaust too much vacation time."

"Charleston next?"

"Perfect, I haven't been there in years."

"Let's go for your birthday.   I'll make the plans.  It will be a surprise."

Charleston seems to be my birthday destination.  I haven't been in about five years, but my first visit was on a road trip with a very special friend who just happens to share the same birthday weekend.     We had a great time together, walking around downtown, enjoying the warm spring air, eating lots of good food and celebrating getting older (okay, maybe just celebrating).  

My next visit was with my mom, also my birthday weekend.  I loved Charleston so much I wanted to bring her.  She loved the city too.   Walking around this weekend, I saw all the mother daughter combinations and felt a little nostalgic.      I'm happy I have that memory though!

We arrived in Charleston just in time for lunch.     Too early for check in, we wandered around the park along the water for awhile, just breathing it all in and starting to relax.    

Lunch was at Slightly North of Broad.   I've had this on my list of places to go forever.  John had a grilled reuben with some really yummy (I hate that word, but it works here) chips and I had a duck confit pizza topped with arugula lemon salad.    The pizza was good, light.  I had to pack most of it up though as  we were heading to cooking class after lunch and wanted to save a little room for tasting.  (More on that soon!)

Favorite location for a road trip?    What's next up on your list? 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Road Trip!

Time for a road trip!

Early morning wake up.
Too much caffeine, too early.
Random conversations.
Fighting over who controls the radio.
Crazy directions.  Traffic.   Messy car.  Cramped legs.
Naps.  Magazines.
(sometimes, cheetos :)
(occasionally, singing off tune)
(always, Anticipation!)

Half the fun is getting there.    We're back from a long and truly wonderful weekend 'down south'.    Anyone want to guess where we landed? (no fair cheating if you are a facebook friend!)

What's your take on road trips?   Love 'em?  Hate 'em?   Have a recent favorite to share?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hindsight Bride - A Wedding Feature

They say that hindsight is 20/20.  

Images from Visio Photography as seen on Hindsight Bride
It's the reason I spent hours (upon hours) researching real life weddings.  I learned so much from other brides while planning my own wedding.  I had the benefit of their experiences to help shape my own.    Advice from past brides was so incredibly helpful.  

I'm honored to have our special day featured in a wonderful wedding blog, Hindsight Bride.   Christie O, a past bride herself, has an eye for selecting gorgeous weddings, many with a mountain style or inspiration.  

If you've been following along with us here on Vita Nostra, you know that our wedding was set in the beautiful mountain setting of Asheville, North Carolina at the Biltmore.   While not your typical mountain setting, the Biltmore brought an added European elegance and a stunning fall backdrop.   It is a magical location, captured by our amazing photography team at Visio Photography.

I wish I had known about Hindsight Bride while I was planning my wedding.    The site is full of great advice from past brides and all kinds of wedding goodness, all with a mountain twist!

I'd love for you to check out the feature... it is full of my personal hindsight advice and lots of great eye candy!  

Past Brides - What is your best advice/lessons learned for anyone who may be currently planning their wedding?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Roman Proposal - A Year Ago Today

Rose at the Spanish Steps near our Hotel
I can't believe it has been a year already!   So much has changed, I hardly feel like the same person.    I think that is a good thing.     

John and I had just arrived in Rome (a surprise trip for me!) and were wandering around jet lagged taking it all in.     It was a whirlwind weekend of a trip, highlighted by a very romantic proposal following dinner at my favorite restaurant.    A year ago today!

Thought I'd share a few images from our proposal weekend in Italy.   Brings back lots of wonderful memories.

Roman Forum
Man on the Steps
Pantheon Cafe

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Etsy Wedding Love

I'm so happy.  Warmer weather is on the way, the sun is out.   Spring is finally here!   Plus, it's St. Patrick's day and who doesn't love a good holiday?

I thought I'd spread a little etsy love today and share some of my favorites that made their way into our wedding.   I would encourage you to check out these sellers.   They were all truly wonderful to work with and helped to make my wedding day special with each of their creative and unique touches.

Our ring bearer bowl, by Paloma's Nest.   I love that we were able to use this during our wedding and can continue to display it now at home.   I'm looking forward to hanging it on our Christmas tree next year.   The quote holds a special memory for me and was a subtle way of personalizing our day.

I love lace.   I especially love French lace.    The French Nest Company is filled to the brim with all kinds of sweet French touches.  I want to gather them all up and surround myself with them!   We used this lace in our favors.

These bags are fabulous!  I was looking for a unique Welcome Bag and stumbled across these beauties.     This Love Languages bag in natural and gold by The Bucktoothed Bunny shares love in all of the languages of the world.   These fit perfectly with our love of travel, our wedding colors, and were a very practical way to hold all of our welcome items for our out of town guests.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Our Italian Wedding Dinner Menu

Italian Baked Alaska.   Image by Visio Photography
So I know what you are thinking.   Italian wedding dinner with french inspired decor?   Really?

For us, it makes perfect sense.    We love to travel and having spent time together in Paris and Rome, John and I wanted to incorporate some of favorite travel memories into our wedding day.  

I knew from day one that the food had to be Italian.    We were engaged in Rome a year ago this month following a very memorable meal starting with my favorite carbonara.   Italy holds a special place in my heart for many reasons and I wanted my dinner to reflect this.  

And the thing about weddings is, it should really be all about the two of you and what you love.   It may not make sense to the outside world, but if it makes sense and feels special to you, then there's really no need to explain.  

Formal Italian Wedding Dinner.    Image by Visio Photography
Our wedding dinner was truly an experience.   White gloved, synchronized service by the team at the Biltmore.   The food, the setting, the entire night, was just the elegant and intimate evening I had always imagined.  

Italian wedding dinners are long drawn out affairs by their very nature.   Multiple courses, one followed by another.   We definitely warned our guests to arrive hungry!

Our Wedding Menu

First Course
Italian Wedding Soup with Biltmore Beef Meatballs, Kale, Pearl Pasta and Herbs

Second Course
Spinach, Red Onion, Pine Nut and Goat Cheese Salad with Warm Pancetta Vinaigrette


Third Course
Spaghetti Alla Carbonara with Cracked Black Pepper, Parmesan and Pancetta

Fourth Course
Veal Osso Bucco, Braised Veal Shanks, Gremolata, Creamy Polenta, Haricot Vert

Italian Baked Alaska, Espresso Gelato, Marsala Ice Cream, Lady Finger Cake, Toasted Meringue, Raspberry and Chocolate Sauce

The dessert was a special dessert created for us by the Biltmore team.    They truly brought the concept of Italian and Baked Alaska to life.    I'm looking forward to trying to recreate some of the other dishes at home.     Been working on the Italian Wedding Soup and Carbonara recipes, but might need a little more experience before I tackle that Baked Alaska.  

When planning your wedding menu, did you incorporate any special dishes unique to you or your family?   Any favorites that you've been able to recreate at home?    I'd love for you to link up any recipes you have in the comments below!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Italian Wedding Soup

Fun Fact 1:  The Biltmore Estate in Asheville has a Farm to Table Program allowing their chefs to take advantage of the estates gardens and pastures while preparing the menus for each of the on site restaurants.

Fun Fact 2:   This program allowed us to have some really neat things, like Biltmore Beef meatballs in the Italian Wedding Soup we selected for our final menu.   Yes, the cows were actually 'grown' on site.   Cool.

Fun Fact 3:   We love Italian Wedding Soup.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Little Taste

I'm sure I won't completely shock you by saying that planning our wedding menu was one of the tasks in our wedding checklist that I was most looking forward to.  The menu tasting fell neatly in line right after that.  

The Chef and catering team at the Biltmore did a phenomenal job working with me to understand what I was looking for, offering amazing suggestions and then executing it wonderfully.    John and I had so much fun at the tasting.   It was one of a series of marathon wedding tasks we were checking off the list on a very memorable weekend in Asheville.