Sharing food and my favorite recipe

In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.


I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.

If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercornsSmoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.

Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)

Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
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The reality of home-cooked meals

I don’t usually pull out my soapbox here, but last week, Slate published an article titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” that addressed a study that argues “the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” Then I read this rebuttal and I got angry.

Look, I absolutely believe to my core that we as a society need to prioritize home cooking, growing our own when and where possible, and making good, fresh, sustainable food available geographically and financially. But the way our culture is set up, that is not always easy or even possible, and those roadblocks need to be addressed.

More than a few studies show that women (even with a partner) still do a larger percentage of housework and childcare, including cooking/grocery shopping/cleaning up, even after working a full-time job. That’s not even taking into consideration single parents, parents who work multiple jobs with odd hours for low pay, food desserts, the challenges of getting those so-much-cheaper-than-chips multi-pound bags of potatoes home on a bus. The percent of people who face any one of these challenges, let alone multiple, is far more than the 2% the author in the second article cites (a number that is so wildly out of line with reality I really couldn’t take anything else he said seriously).

And it’s patently not true that “healthful ground beef from pastured cattle versus fast-food burgers” is cheaper by the pound, especially when you take into account the time, tools, and knowledge necessary to acquire, store, and cook said beef. But that’s honestly one of the problem(s) that we should be addressing, not shaming the people who aren’t cooking (or spending their time or money) the way we think they should be.

I am so incredibly lucky and privileged; I acknowledge that. I was lucky that a home-cooked family dinner was a priority for my parents at both of their houses growing up. My dad (a former farmer who had decades of know-how) had a big garden in our yard that supplied a lot of our fresh vegetables in spring, summer, fall and (frozen) throughout the winter. My mom liked food and cooking and trying new things and encouraged my sisters and I to do the same. But my parents also had jobs where they could be home for dinner at a reasonable hour, had the tools and stability to make cooking a reliable option, and knew enough to teach me and my sisters how to start dinner or fend for ourselves if, and when, needed.

I am also lucky in that I love to cook, I reliably get home before 6 p.m. every night, I don’t have kids to care for or cart around to activities, I have the money to spend on the organic pastured local chicken (which, by the way, $26 for two 3.5 pound birds at the farmers market this weekend, four times what a regular chicken would be at the grocery store) or the produce at the farmer’s market (which is rarely less expensive than the grocery store–a whole other frustrating myth–even if it might be fresher, tastier, or more healthful). And even I sometimes find cooking an obnoxious chore.

Idealizing a home-cooked family meal is as much of a problem as idealizing the stay-at-home mom from decades past (a whole other rant for another time, because many, many women did have to work outside the home in some capacity to make ends meet). It’s not always cheap, easy, fast, or pretty, though it most certainly can be all those things. We should not give people excuses so they don’t have to try, which is a fundamental problem of the original Slate article. But we also cannot, I repeat cannot, shame them when we don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

Do I think it would be great if we could all sit down for an hour for every meal, food made from scratch, with good conversation and no electronics? Of course. But everyone has their threshold. Who am I to say that a parent is wrong if they’d rather spend time reading with their kid, taking them to a sport, or helping with homework when they get home exhausted at 8 p.m. instead of spending that time in the kitchen (and yes, kids should be helping in the kitchen too, but “I was making dinner” isn’t going to fly when homework isn’t ready for class the next day).

You know what the fastest way is to get someone to tune you out? Start telling them how wrong they’re doing things. No matter how much you have to say about building a better food culture and community, how much knowledge you might want to share about growing or cooking healthful food on a budget or with limited time or resources, none of it will be heard when it starts with “You’re doing it wrong.”

Instead of blaming, let’s encourage; instead of judging, let’s help. Let’s challenge ourselves to start changing what we can, even if it’s one thing, even if it feels small–one night without tv; trying once a week, even once a month, to switch out a boxed meal with something more healthful. Let’s share the knowledge and tools we have with our community. We all have something to contribute to make this ideal of a home-cooked meal more of a reality.

A little sweet, a little sour

I know, strawberry season is a distant memory at this point. But I hope you’ve got a few stashed away in the freezer because, on my third summer of making jam, I’ve finally figured out a basic strawberry jam that I really, really love.

Little jar of jamA few months ago, I saw a demo by Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, the primary resource I’ve used to learn about canning. One of the best points she made was that when people want to learn to make preserves, the first things they try are strawberry jam and cucumber pickles–two of the hardest recipes to get right. I’m not a cucumber pickle fan (though I’m acquiring a taste for them), but I can attest that the strawberry jam I’ve made the past two years was more like strawberry sauce. Tasted good, but not quite what I wanted.

Another bowl o' berriesTurns out that since strawberries naturally are low in pectin, they either require more sugar or added pectin to get a real jammy texture. I don’t particularly like the idea of using essentially equal parts sugar and fruit, so I didn’t want to go that route. I don’t like dealing with pectin packets, but what about adding another fruit that’s really high in pectin? Here I took a cue from my favorite fall preserve, cranberry conserve, that sets amazingly well (in part because cranberries have a ton of pectin) and keeps its gorgeous red color. And how convenient, last fall I stuck a gallon bag of cranberries in the freezer.

Cooking
Molten strawberriesI’m not sure where I saw the initial idea to combine strawberries and cranberries, but let me tell you, while this takes a little forethought (either finding cranberries in summer or good strawberries in late fall), it is 100% worth it. The cranberries help set the texture of the jam, they contribute to the beautiful color, and they provide a little sour contrast to what can otherwise be a one-note preserve.

So while strawberry season may be over, I hope you’ll keep this in mind come fall when cranberries are everywhere. Use frozen strawberries to make this jam or freeze a few bags of cranberries  for next spring. (Tangent: this was the project I used to break in my new kitchen–can I just say how much I love having an island? Everyone should have one of these! This jam also made a great gift to introduce myself to my new neighbors. Tangent the second: a nice little profile from Paper/Plates on yours truly with some fun book and food questions.)

Thick and jammyJam and bread

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam Continue reading

Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard

Have pie, be happy

I feel I’ve been remiss when it comes to pie. I’ve shared recipes for pie crust, sour cherry pie, coconut custard pie, and plum spice pie, but how can I talk so much about pie with mentioning the classic apple pie? Oh well, no better time than a week before Thanksgiving.

Apple pile Perfection, if I say so myself

Everyone  has “their” apple pie, made especially for holidays that rely on tradition. A particular type of apple from the family favorite farm stand that smells like wood smoke and cider, the crust made just-so by the hands of the trusted family pie-baker, the spices measured in pinches and shakes instead of teaspoons or ounces. For me, that pie is my dad’s apple pie, the top crust (my favorite part) poofing high over the apples and crackles and shatters when it’s cut (this is where I fall on the side of tradition versus doing it “right”–supposedly that puffed up crust isn’t ideal because it means the crust set before the apples had a chance to cook down. To that I say…well I don’t say anything because my mouth is full of delicious, delicious pie.)

Beautiful apples Nothing better than stealing a piece from this bowl Crust dust

This pie I’m sharing with you is not my dad’s apple pie. Or my mom’s, or my either of my grandmas’. It may become mine though, after a few years of nudging portions this way or that until I get it just so. I’m quite happy with this version for now though, the little tweaks and touches I’ve made to the original recipe  to make it my own.

Sprinkled and fluted

I mentioned recently that I picked up the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie cookbook and, having finally baked one of its recipes, I can’t say enough good things about it. All those questions you have about making really good pie? This book answers them. Obviously it has a great crust recipe that isn’t crazy complicated (and, I was pleased to note, was similar to the recipes from my grandmothers that I adapted to make my favorite crust). It has pies for each season, making my farmers market-loving heart ever so happy. It has small pies, big pies, sweet and savory, fruits and custards and pies I didn’t even know existed. There is a whole section on quiche (for any of my book club friends who might be reading–fair warning). It finally, finally showed me how to make pretty crimped edges that my awkward fingers could manage.

Ready to bakeBeautiful pie

Ultimately, it made the most spectacular looking pie that has ever come from my two hands–just look at this thing. I half expected a chorus of angels and the light of god to shine down when I pulled it out of the oven (and that’s not patting myself on the back, but acknowledging how good the instructions are in this book). Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty damn good too.

First slice of pie, crust crumbleThe missing piece

Essentially I love that this book treats pie with the respect it deserves. Yes, pie takes some practice. Yes, it takes a bit of time and attention. Pie has an incredibly rich history that I’m drawn to, a heritage full of generations modifying the basic recipe to fit what was available, what made sense at the time.

Pie is a dish that satisfies the soul, and is there any better time for soul-satisfying food than the end of November with loved ones gathered around a table to eat and share and be happy? I think not.

Have pie, be happy.

Perfect slice

Apple Pie
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Cheers!

With Thanksgiving, the holiday for all lovers of food, family, and friends just a few weeks away (I was apparently in denial when I wrote this–it’s next week), I wanted to talk about community for a second.

If you know me well, you know I’m generally happy, and quite good at, being the observer, the analyzer, the reporter. It takes me a while to warm up to people, being outgoing does not come naturally to me (there’s some irony that I’ve found myself writing in such a public way here and in my day job). Yes, I was that kid who sat at the lunch table at a new school with her nose buried in a book for a year listening to the conversations around me before figuring out where I fit. Thankfully I’ve gotten better at balancing my introvert/extrovert tendencies since then, but it’s still something that requires a conscious effort.

Attentive

That said, the best thing this blog has given me is a topic that I can’t help but want to talk about. It’s become a built-in conversation starter to meet and talk with fellow writers, cooks, bakers, photographers, and just people who love to eat and talk about food. Lately, between the Chicago Food Swap and Chicago Food Bloggers, I’ve been to some great events and met amazing new people equally passionate about food. It’s been beyond fun.

So festive!

Earlier this month, I got to attend my second Chicago Food Swap and found myself starting conversations about the beautiful food other folks brought, being greeted by name by more than a few people, making new friends, and just generally being excited about being in the same room with so many like-minded people. Plus I got some awesome treats!

My stash

(If you’ve never been to a swap, it’s kind of organized chaos with food–you bring a bunch of homemade goodies, spend the first hour checking out what everyone else brought and the second hour swapping. I brought about 8 containers each of muhammara, cranberry conserve, pickled cranberries, and “autumn in a jar” conserve, and came home with more than I even remember. I wish I had thought to ask for recipes for everything! And yes, I’m sharing the wealth. Yes, I’m getting back to exercising…soon. And next time I’m limiting myself to two sweets.)

Chicago Food Swap

This is what I came home with:

  • Ginger honey
  • Lingonberry donut holes (there was a real name for these but I forgot it)
  • Pecan maple butter
  • Kimchi
  • Bulgogi kimbap (Korean version of sushi with marinated and cooked beef)
  • Pork dumplings
  • Corn salsa
  • Apple jelly
  • Apple cranberry ginger chutney
  • Honey pickles
  • Curried apple chutney
  • Green tomato relish
  • Pumpkin caramel
  • Peanut butter chocolate fudge
  • Kombucha starter
  • Cookies
  • Two kinds of pumpkin cheesecake
  • Cranberry almond quickbread
  • Pumpkin chocolate quickbread
  • Hot chocolate mix (and a mug!)
  • Meringues
  • Orecchiette
  • Toffee
  • Fresh arugula
  • Wheatberry salad
  • Pumpkin spice syrup
  • Foccacia
  • Dried herbs

The same sentiment applies to the Chicago Food Bloggers meetup back in September. I mentioned it briefly, but there’s something special about a community of people who love food, love to talk about food, love to make food gathered together to learn, cook, eat. There too I found myself welcomed by name with open arms (though it always helps when you bring food to a foodie event) and nearly talking myself hoarse, wishing the event lasted longer. I can’t wait for the next one!

Chicago Food Bloggers

So cheers, a toast! A festive little drink in thanks for the people I’ve met, friends I’ve made, and the community I’ve found!

Cranberry gin cocktail

Thanks to Mike Kostyo for the pictures from the Chicago Food Bloggers event!

Cranberry Gin Cocktail Continue reading

Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?

Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?

Fall flavors, take 2

Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

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Plum crazy

I always want to love plums. Their colors are perfectly fall and all my favorites–royal purples, deep-sea blues, ruby reds, sunshine yellows–but their flavor is a gamble. One bite, sweet and juicy enough to rival a peak season peach, the next tart enough to pucker your lips and twist your face. I’m not one to take bets lightly, so I gave up on hitting the jackpot with plums.

More plums in a bowl Plum crumble pie

But there are two things I’ve learned in the past few years when it comes to cooking. First, the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are so not representative of the variety that is actually available, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great market or farmstand nearby. Second, if I don’t like something prepared one way, another method could just be the answer.

Plums Freestone plums Sliced Plums all sliced

Both of these lessons prove true when it comes to plums. The first in the discovery of Italian/Stanley/prune plums–beautiful hazy deep blue fruit, which also happens to be freestone (yes, plums, like peaches, have clingstone and freestone varieties) so they’re easy to eat out of hand or chop and use in cooking. The second learned last fall as watched my (regrettably small) batches of plum jam and plum chutney cook down to an unbelievable color, texture, and flavor.

Simmering Chutney Plum filling

It was love at first velvety bite, and that chutney is still one of my top 3 favorite preserves.

With these two lessons in mind–the type of plum matters, and cooking it makes it better–and a new love of plum chutney, it was no surprise that this pie had me positively tapping my foot with impatience for plums to make their appearance at the market.

Crimped Par-baked and filled Ready to bake!

This pie surprised me. Yes, anything baking smells good, but this made my apartment smell out-of-this-world amazing. The juicy plum filling bubbling up through the crumbles looks beautifully homey, like that sweater you love but only wear around the house on a blustery day. And it tasted like everything that makes me happy–spiced and tart and just a little sweet.

Drippy

The biggest surprise? That I am so smitten with a crumble-topped pie, as the top crust is usually my favorite part. The reason it works is two-fold: first, the crumble allows enough steam to escape that the plum filling gets even jammier than it would with a solid top crust; second, the top of double-crust pie is really only perfect the first day when it’s crisp and crackly, but the crumble-top pie is delicious for at least a second day (if you have pie for more than two days, you are doing something wrong and clearly need to invite me over sooner).

Beautiful

Finally, I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this, but if you’re looking for a pie for the holidays, this is it. As it’s baking, it just smells like the holidays exploded. It’s not overly sweet, and the tartness reminds me in some ways of my favorite sour cherry pie. It’s really, really spectacular.

Plum crumble pie

(Look, I know how intimidating pie can be, but you know what? If you really don’t want to deal with making a crust, this works well as a cobbler baked in a 9×9 baking dish for 45 minutes to an hour, or you can be super adorable and make cobblers in jars. Because I just need more things to put in jars.)

Spiced Plum Crumb Pie
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Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

Roasted Red Pepper Soup Continue reading

New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

2013-09-29 12.39.50

Best Veggie Chili Continue reading