Proof is in the pudding

Each fall, for as many years back as I can remember, my mom made persimmon pudding. This was no small undertaking. First, you have to find a source for the persimmons. My mom had the hook up; always managing to know someone with a persimmon tree. Every October or so, when the dusky orange plum-like fruit would fall to the ground, my mom was right there, poaching. She swore you had to wait until the messy persimmons ripened, turned squishy and fell off the tree, otherwise they’d be tart enough to make you pucker if you made the mistake of biting into one too soon.

A full day of processing then ensued, washing the persimmons and straining them through a food-mill contraption mom reserved solely for this once-a-year purpose. After that came the ceremonial baking of the persimmon pudding, a recipe my mom gleaned from her mother, and very likely, her mother before that. You get the idea. Persimmon pudding was a fall tradition in my house, and one I’m ashamed to say I eschewed. I never ate the stuff. For some reason, I decided to turn up my nose at it when I was little, and stubborn as I am, I never tried it again.

Spring Mill Inn at Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park

So it was with no small amount of irony that I attended the opening Candlelight Tour that kicked off the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival last night at Spring Mill State Park. Part of the package was a stay at the lovely Spring Mill Inn, and dinner at the on-site Millstone Dining Room, a buffet packed with all the good old-fashioned comfort foods you most likely grew up on, if you grew up in Indiana during the 1970s like I did. Think roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with chunks of ham… And the piece de resistance — while it’s typically just a seasonal fall dessert for many, persimmon pudding stays on the menu here year-round. They don’t always have it out on the buffet, which puzzles me, but all you have to do to score a piece is ask.

persimmon pudding at Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room

In keeping with tradition, my pudding arrived in a cute little square topped with a generous dollop of Cool Whip. Grabbing a fork, I scooped up a big bite, toasted my mom and tucked it into my mouth. Tasty, I must say. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed it to be pumpkin – the consistency and flavor were exactly like a mild, creamy pumpkin pie filling. My friend Janet liked it, too, even in spite of harboring a pumpkin pie grudge of her own that went way back. We both cleaned our little plates, pleasantly surprised, and vowed never to judge a dessert by its cover again.

The Spring Mill Inn persimmon pudding is nothing like I remember my mom making, though. Mom’s was much more spongy and cake-like, nearly like a very moist gingerbread.

Sadly, the elaborate persimmon pudding-making process I never took part in was abandoned when my dear mom passed away ten years ago. I know I still have the family recipe somewhere, and I’m thinking I might just have to bring it out of hiding this year for old times sake. (Fortunately, it’s not hard to find pints of already-processed persimmon pulp for sale around Indy, if you know where to look.) Here’s hoping I’ll make my mama proud.

For more info about Spring Mill Inn (which is every bit as nice as the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, if not nicer, IMHO), visit http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/springmill/

For info on the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival, go to http://persimmonfestival.org/

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Healthy organics

My latest catered event – a buffet dinner for 35 last Saturday night. The event was part of a healthy living retreat, so the focus was heavy on organic and natural ingredients. The menu: chicken marsala; butternut squash risotto; grilled vegetables; baby greens salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans and apple cider vinaigrette; and multi-grain dinner rolls. For dessert: oven-roasted peaches with a mixed-berry coulis and toasted almonds. (I could kick myself for not getting a photo, it was beautiful!) And I whipped up a batch of cinnamon-ginger meringue kisses for a little bonus dessert nibble.

All in all, everything went swimmingly, and the client seemed to really enjoy it. Gillian, my sous-chef, was a fabulous help, and even bought along two small champagnes in a can for us to celebrate after serving! What a gal!

the buffet table

the buffet table

mixed grilled summer veggies

mixed grilled summer veggies

chicken marsala with mushrooms

chicken marsala with mushrooms

Two for one

Yesterday, my lovely friend Laura and her lovely sisters hosted not one, but two bridal showers. Yes, on the same day! The first was a brunch for their youngest sister Julie, and the second was a Mexican-themed cocktail party for their future sister-in-law Rachel. I offered to do the food for both… needless to say, I’ve been a busy girl these past few days!

Everything went fine until my water softener started causing problems on Friday, right in the middle of all my food preparation. Fortunately, Laura allowed me to invade her kitchen in the middle of all of her own preparations to get some things done. My dad arrived that night to babysit, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.

The food turned out great, I couldn’t have been more pleased! The brunch menu consisted of four different kinds of quiche – broccoli cheese, spinach feta, sausage with red pepper and onion, and ham and cheese – bacon, vanilla bean syruped fruit skewers and mini cupcakes decorated with raspberries and kiwi to coordinate with the bride’s chosen colors of hot pink and pale green.

I went home in between showers to recuperate a little and spend a few minutes with the baby before packing up and heading back for the second shift. The Mexican menu was beef and cheese empanadas (thanks for the recipe, Jen!), gazpacho in chilled espresso cups, cheese jalapeno corn muffins, crudite with dip, nacho chips with cheese, salsa, fresh guacamole and frozen key lime tarts for dessert.

Everyone seemed happy with the food at both parties, and I was happy Laura and her sisters were on hand to pitch in when I needed assistance! All in all, a good time was had by all.

the quiche/bacon buffet

the quiche/bacon buffet

spinach feta quiche

spinach feta quiche

fruit skewers

fruit skewers

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

the Mexi-buffet

the Mexi-buffet

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

beef empanadas

beef empanadas

gazpacho cups

gazpacho cups

chips and dips

chips and dips

mini jalapeno corn muffins

mini jalapeno corn muffins

Cocktails, anyone?

Last Friday night, I hosted a cocktail party to christen “This Little Piggy,” the moniker I’ve chosen for my catering enterprise. The weather was fantastic, the guests were great and the food turned out beautifully! I couldn’t have been happier about the way it all came together. Thanks to everyone who attended, and for supporting me in this new venture/adventure.

Check it out…

the buffet

the buffet

cheddar gougeres (cheese puffs)

cheddar gougeres (cheese puffs)

fruit and cheese platter

fruit and cheese platter

crudite and dip platter

crudite and dip platter

California shrimp cocktails

California shrimp cocktails

meatballs marinara

meatballs marinara

lemon cherry cheesecake bites

lemon cherry cheesecake bites

fudge mint brownies

fudge mint brownies

my new business cards!

my new business cards!

All you can eat

My husband hails from Europe and is constantly pointing out the cultural differences between his homelands and mine. (Really, he’s always bragging about how much better Europe is than America, but that’s another blog entry entirely…) One item we often discuss is the general weight and health of Americans as compared to Europeans. If you’ve ever read “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” you know what I’m talking about. The puzzling conundrum that allows these svelte ladies to regularly consume wine, cheese, cream sauces, foie gras, croissants and creme brulee in bulk, yet still manage to look like they just stepped off a fashion runway. 

The keys, my fellow foodies, are all things in moderation and building more physical activity into our lifestyles. It’s simple advice and we’ve all heard it before, but how many of us really adhere faithfully? The American foodscape makes it difficult, to say the least.

My dad, bless his heart, is old school in his thoughts on food. When he goes out to eat, it’s all about getting the most bang for his buck, and anything over $10 a head or so is stretching his tolerance. For him, that means quantity, not quality. We almost dread his invitations to go out to eat when we visit because this invitation will mean one of two establishments – Golden Corral or the local Chinese buffet. If it’s really a special occasion, possibly a place called Welliver’s that offers a more upscale buffet including endless peel-and-eat shrimp, but it’s got to be something fairly extraordinary to merit such an upgrade (I’ve been to Welliver’s two or three times in my entire life that I can recall). My dad also hits KFC every Tuesday without fail because it offers a $2.99 country-fried steak dinner special. He considers this a healthy meal. Sadly, I’d venture to say my dad is in the majority of most Hoosiers, if not Americans, when it comes to his views on food.

It must run in the family – my brother will always groan and roll his eyes whenever my dad suggests Golden Corral, but he will always go along and eat like it’s his job, coming home saying “never again.” Until the next time. For my crazy uncle Dave (my dad’s brother), eating is barely short of an extreme sport. He dines out constantly, can put away an alarming amount of food in an alarmingly short amount of time and make it all seem funny. And no matter how much he’s had to eat at a restaurant, he will come home and polish off a pint of ice cream. When I was living in Los Angeles, Dave decided to introduce me to sushi. I knew this was going to be a mistake of monumental proportions when we pulled up to a sushi buffet. We sped through the line with Dave throwing things on my plate right and left – “try this! Ooh, you’ve gotta have a couple of these!” By the time I sat down and unwrapped my silverware, Dave had already finished his fish and was up for round two. I have no idea what I ate that night, but it didn’t taste terribly fresh or good, and I haven’t been for sushi since. 

At the risk of sounding like food snobs, hubby and I cannot for the life of us understand the fascination with all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. What’s the point in loading up your plate with a bite or two of a dozen different foods (half of which will be mediocre at best); forcing yourself to eat two or three such plates to get your money’s worth; then go home complaining about how sick and stuffed you feel? Personally, I’d rather pay more for one decently portioned plate of one good-quality item I know I will enjoy. Anyone who takes me to an all-you-can-eat buffet is going to lose money if they’re expecting me to make two or three trips to the trough. Every time, I will select one salad, one entree, a couple sides and possibly a small bite of dessert. That’s it and I refuse to apologize.

Several years ago, hubby and I completed a 12,000 mile road trip around the U.S. on a target budget of $100 a day. During this trip, I must mention that on several occasions, we actually sought out Golden Corrals because we knew that a) we could at least get a salad there and b) it was relatively cheap and offered plenty of choices. It was on one of these visits that hubby coined the phrase “salad dodgers.” Looking around, we observed that the majority of diners in these establishments are overweight, if not obese. We also observed that even though there are healthy items available on the line, these items are often avoided entirely in lieu of the bad-for-you stuff. No joke, on one of these visits as Patrick and I ate our salads, we glanced over at the rather robust couple at the next table over. Not a veggie in sight, they were each working their way through plates filled to nearly overflowing with chicken wings and unrecognizable greasy deep-fried badness. As an appetizer. For the sake of research, we subtly kept an eye on our fellow diners throughout our meal, and hardly any ventured anywhere near the salad bar the entire night. Take a look around next time you’re at one of these places, and you know you will be. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is this: Why is it so difficult to get healthy food at a competitive price in America? Why is it so much cheaper and easier to swing through a McDonald’s drive-through than it is to hit up somewhere you can get a fresh salad or grilled meat and two veg? And don’t tell me that McDonald’s sells salads and such – when’s the last time you thought about ordering anything at McDonald’s without fries? And what does it say about our collective mentality that we think all-you-can-eat buffets are the be-all, end-all of dining out? 

Ok. I’ll get off my soapbox now. On this point, I must admit, hubby’s got a point. Score: Europe 1. America 0.