Get outta town!

Girls just want to have fun, and a “Just Us Girls” packaged trip in Richmond, Ind. and Wayne County offered two of my best gal pals and me the perfect opportunity to do just that over the weekend.

In addition to the fabulous food, great shopping venues, and array of discount coupons and freebies we enjoyed as part of the package, the highlight of our trip was an overnight stay at the Historic Lantz House Inn, a beguiling bed and breakfast in Centerville.

the lovely Lantz House Inn

Daniel Lantz, a wagon maker, originally constructed the handsome brick Federal-style home along the Old National Road (now U.S. 40) in the early 1800s. The property takes in three separate buildings connected by a graceful arch, a distinctive architectural detail common to Centerville during that era.

These days, the Lantz House is owned and operated by Marcia Hoyt, a Richmond native who returned to the area in 1992 after a period of time living in Oregon. Marcia spent two years lovingly restoring the historic property before opening its doors to the public as an inn in 1994. Since then, Marcia’s dedicated efforts have garnered plenty of attention and media recognition, including an appearance on the cover of Midwest Living magazine in December 1996.

the cozy Lantz House Inn sitting room

From the moment we stepped through the door, we felt comfortable and comforted. A cozy fire burned in the sitting room, beckoning us to sit down and relax. It couldn’t have been more charming right off the bat, and neither could Marcia. After a little get-to-know-you chat, she showed us to our rooms. Throughout the home, the furnishings are an eclectic but tasteful mix of antique, traditional and contemporary items.

Upstairs are four spacious bedrooms (rates run from $103 to $136 per night plus tax), along with a common area where guests can kick back to read or watch TV. The sleeping spaces are outfitted in simple and elegant Shaker-style beds, and each includes its own en-suite bathroom.

We felt so at home here, we passed on the chance to stay out late drinking so we could come back to the inn and watch Saturday Night Live in our pajamas. Heaven for three busy moms like us!

fresh fruit first course

After a very restful night’s sleep in our peaceful surroundings (I’m embarrassed to say one of my friends actually had to knock on my door and wake me up at 10 a.m.), we feasted on the sumptuous breakfast Marcia prepared – fresh fruit with a tangy orange yogurt sauce, her signature soufflé-like lemon ricotta pancakes with sausage links, and all the coffee we could drink.

Marcia’s signature lemon ricotta pancakes

After our leisurely meal, we had to reluctantly admit it was time to pack up, check out, and get on with the rest of our Just Us Girls getaway, although we all agreed we could easily have spent the entire weekend just relaxing at the Lantz House and been perfectly happy about it.

This time of year, Centerville’s charming holiday decorations make for a lovely stroll up and down Main Street. In the spring and summer, the gardens alone are worth a visit to the Lantz House. Full of native bushes, trees and perennials, the verdant green space is home to hostas, wildflowers and a majestic century-old gingko tree — all provide a beautiful backdrop for weddings, events or just a quiet afternoon in the sun. I guess we’ll just have to plan to make a return trip…

For more information:

www.lantzhouseinn.com

www.visitrichmond.org

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A Story worth repeating

Hubby and I enjoyed, sort of, what could have been a very romantic evening last weekend in Brown County. Read on and I’ll explain later…

Last Friday saw us spending the night at the adorable Story Inn, about 10 miles south of Nashville, Ind. in the miniscule village of Story. Calling Story a village is something of a stretch. As far as I can tell, the whole shebang consists of the inn, a farm or two, and a stop sign. It is, however, a supremely peaceful, idyllic little escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday bigger city life. Don’t expect to find wi-fi, televisions or even alarm clocks in the rooms at Story Inn. You’ll be lucky if you get cell phone reception. There’s really no choice here but to relax. This is not a bad thing. It’s perfectly ok to switch off and be inaccessible every once in a while.

the charming Story Inn

We basically spent our evening at Story chilling out in our rustic cabin digs, and meandering down a big gravel hill in the moonlight to enjoy dinner at the inn. The on-site restaurant is the only food option for miles, unless you fancy making the 20-minute-or-so drive into Nashville up a series of twisty country roads guaranteed to make you carsick.

When all is said and done, the Story Inn food and ambiance are worth the trip. The farmhouse-style décor in the restaurant is cozy and intimate, but totally casual. In keeping with the rest of the whole Story Inn experience, meals are a leisurely affair. So much so that the web site suggests allowing at least two hours for dinner.

For such an out-of-the-way location and small-town vibe, the Story Inn cranks out some impressively high-quality food. The menu is small, but servings are generous and ingredients are familiar, yet still fancy enough to be upscale. Locavore to the core, the menu graciously recognizes an array of local producers and suppliers.

the Story salad

To start, we quickly scarfed down warm slices of sourdough-esque table bread along with a Story salad consisting of mixed greens, goat cheese, apples and pecans.

chicken dinner Story Inn-style

Hubby liked his chicken breast with gingered peaches, corn pudding and roasted vegetables, and even tolerated the onions sprinkled in here and there. Now THAT’s saying something.

spicy tomato vegetable risotto

My vegetarian entrée of delectable roasted baby artichokes, tomatoes, olives and feta over lemon risotto was beautiful and delicious as well, with a surprisingly spicy tomato broth that really brought it all together. For dessert, we shared a sinfully rich chocolate pot de crème buried under a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

chocolate pot de creme

Did I mention the Story Inn offers a top-shelf wine and beer selection, along with full bar service? The Manhattan(s) I sipped were perfectly mixed, and hubby enjoyed his Upland Wheat beer served as it was in a Mason jar. All told, we agreed that Story Inn was an out-of-the-way find worth discovering, and we slowly made our way back up the hill to our settle into our charming accommodations for the night.

So, yes, it could have been a wonderfully romantic evening if it weren’t for two hiccups — No. 1 being the fact that we had our two boys along for the ride (our three-year-old son and my seven-year-old stepson). And No. 2 being that said seven-year-old stepson woke up barfing his brains out at 3 a.m., poor little dude. Eight words you never want to hear in the middle of the night: “My tummy hurts. I need a trash can.”

Next time, I think we’ll arrange to leave the kiddos at home.

For more information,

www.storyinn.com

Story Inn on Urbanspoon

Everything old is new again

I didn’t grow up in Indianapolis, so I’m always at a loss when people talk about the sentimental joys of dining in the old L.S. Ayres Tea Room. In my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, I don’t recall my mom taking me to any restaurants that required donning my Sunday-best dress, white gloves and black patent leather shoes. The closest we got to fine dining was our weekly trip to the longtime defunct Miller’s Cafeteria for the best broasted chicken EVER.

So although I missed the opportunity to appreciate the original tea room in its heyday (it operated from 1905 until 1990 in the former L.S. Ayres department store), the painstakingly recreated eatery at the Indiana State Museum provides a nostalgic chance to enjoy some of the dishes that made it famous.

Indiana State Museum in White River State Park

The first thing that hit me when I walked in was, wow, this place is old school. Then again, that’s the vibe they’re going for with ornate chandeliers, white columns and curtained room partitions. It’s all very elegant and refined; I could very clearly picture the ladies who’ve lunched here through the years and what a big deal it must have been. Things are a little more relaxed now. White gloves are no longer de rigeur and the dress code is more forgiving. Still, this is obviously a restaurant that strives to uphold tradition. I’ll bet it’s probably packed to the gills on Mother’s Day.

L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum

In keeping with the décor, the menu is seriously retro, full of fun throwback recipes like ham loaf, Hawaiian chicken salad served in a hollowed out pineapple, Monte Cristo sandwiches and chicken pot pie.

My group’s menu was preselected; we had the option to sub out other items if we wanted, but I figured whoever was doing the choosing knew best. I trusted that judgment, and was happy to do so.

To start, everyone at our table slurped down cups of the signature chicken velvet soup. If you like creamy soups, this stuff should be right up your alley. Rich doesn’t even begin to cover it — this was so thick, it was nearly a gravy with chunky tender chicken bites buried within. The cup was the perfect amount; I can’t imagine eating an entire bowl, unless that’s the only thing you plan on having.

the signature chicken velvet soup

There were a couple of choices for our second course – I went for the “small” Monte Cristo, which actually wasn’t small at all, but a full sandwich. (For the uninitiated, a Monte Cristo is like a French toast sandwich filled with ham, turkey and cheese.) The whole concoction is assembled, dunked into an egg batter, grilled and served with a little cup of fruity jammy dipping sauce. Not for the faint of heart, but certainly delicious.

the Monte Cristo

Dessert was something called a pecan ball — a scoop of vanilla ice cream that’s been rolled in a thick coating of chopped nuts, refrozen and then served with fudge sauce and whipped cream. Old-fashioned, indulgent and the ideal way to end this kind of meal. Don’t worry about the calories, just dig in and go for it.

the decadent pecan ball

A couple quick facts I betcha didn’t know about the Indiana State Museum:  the exterior of the limestone building includes a small sculpture and/or block representing each of the 92 counties within the state. And the IMAX theater snack bar features Indiana-made products like popcorn, Hubbard & Cravens coffee, and Gummi bears from Vincennes. Cool.

The L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum is open for lunch only, and is closed Mondays. The restaurant isn’t large, so reservations are a good idea, especially around any holidays. My mom would have loved this place.

For more information, visit:

http://www.indianamuseum.org/visit/info/dini.html

L.S. Ayres Tea Room on Urbanspoon

Read all about it

Research for this assignment took me on a very enjoyable trip through Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati back in March for Indianapolis Monthly. My Lexington adventure is covered in the current issue of the magazine on stands now, along with an article I wrote about the Indiana Wine Trail.

The Louisville and Cincinnati coverage is available for your viewing pleasure at the newly revamped Indianapolis Monthly web site:

http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/features/Story.aspx?ID=1423515

Check it out if you’re in the market for a long weekend getaway this summer, or even just some armchair traveling!

Vera, Vera, Vera

This entry isn’t going to be about food, but forgive me. The material is just too good to pass up. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last Friday touring some very cool stuff in Fort Wayne. Just some of the cool stuff, mind you, there’s way too much to see and do in a single day. For many in our group, the main attraction was a stop at the Vera Bradley outlet sale.

I’d never really explored Fort Wayne until I was sent up on a freelance assignment last year specifically to cover the Vera Bradley outlet sale, and to check out a few other attractions and restaurants as well. I didn’t do a whole lot of research ahead of time — I went in cold, and came out with the warm fuzzies. Fort Wayne is super clean, easy to navigate and holds lots of pretty green space. The city has a vibrant downtown area, tons of kid-friendly stuff to do and an awesome array of restaurants. I was seriously impressed, and all too happy to accept the invite to come up and tour again this year (thanks, Kristen!).

The Vera Bradley sale was the first scheduled stop on our day-long itinerary. After convening at the Holiday Inn up north, we hopped in vans and motored across the street to the Coliseum. Let’s chat about Vera for a minute. Here’s the skinny – the Fort Wayne-headquartered Vera Bradley company manufactures quilted bags of all shapes, sizes and patterns. (They also make accessories, stationery and some other stuff, but the bags are really their bread and butter.) Even if you don’t know the name, I’m sure you’d quickly recognize a Vera Bradley bag if you saw one. They’re EVERYWHERE. College campuses, airports, walking down the street.

My friend Theresa also insists I mention that the Vera Bradley Foundation has donated more than $10 million to breast cancer research, a worthy point.

When it comes to Vera, you’re either a fan or you aren’t. The women who are fans get absolutely hysterical about this stuff. You remember the footage of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show from way back when? Women tearing their hair out, screaming, fainting… ok, maybe it’s not quite that extreme. But these women do love their bags. I was not really a fan, until last year. I’d always thought the bags were cute, but not really my style. Little did I know about the sheer range of additional inventory to be considered. Coin purses, pretty little desk sets and notecards, grocery shopping totes, garment bags, curling iron covers, lipstick cases, aprons, pajamas, sunglasses… the list goes on and on. And, of course, the sale present a great opportunity to stock up on items to give as gifts throughout the year. We just sent my mother-in-law in Ireland a birthday bag for the second year in a row, and I’m now the proud owner of two large totes that are perfect for carrying my laptop in when I travel.

The outlet sale takes place each year in April in Fort Wayne, and the day after it ends, women start planning ahead for next year’s event. Over the course of four days, the whole shebang attracts something like 60,000 attendees from 49 states and a handful of foreign countries, pumping several million dollars into the local economy. I believe VB discounts start at 40 percent off the first day and go down incrementally throughout the sale. By Sunday, they’re practically giving the stuff away. Here’s what it looked like last year when I visited on the second day:

Vera Bradley sale 2010, birds eye view

Now lest you think you’re going to come in here and snag all the just-released new styles and patterns at half price, you’re not. (Although there was a tent out front selling some of the new lines.) The sale is meant to move products that have been discontinued or have very minor flaws, but don’t dismay. There’s still PLENTY here to choose from. You enter the expo hall, grab your pink trash bag and off you go. Shoppers troll the aisles, grabbing a wristlet here, a hipster there.

shopping in action, 2011

When you’ve gathered your stash, you retire to the perimeter of the room to sort, discarding anything you don’t want into a waiting bin which, when full, is rolled behind the scenes to be sorted and restocked.

sorting and discarding, 2010

I’d been to the sale in 2010, so I knew what to expect, and found this year’s event much calmer. Last year, I was seriously surprised not to see some catfights break out. This year, shoppers registered ahead for timed slots, keeping the lines down and the hall not quite as chaotic. However, many of these women are still on a mission and trust me, you don’t want to get in their way. They muscle down the aisles armed with shopping lists, on their cell phones taking orders as if they’re in the midst of a bidding war at an auction. God forbid you happen to try to grab the last large duffel bag just as they’re reaching for it at the same time.

I am not what you’d call a power-shopper. I like to get in and get out, so the one-hour we were allotted at the sale was perfect for me. Just enough time to make my way through everything, assemble the items I was after and pay. I still can’t see bringing myself to stand around for hours to get in and check out, but I’d certainly come back again if I can avoid the lines.

some VB loot from 2010 and 2011

One woman in my group posed a serious and thoughtful question about Vera Bradley etiquette — should one be married to the same pattern all the time and required to devote herself to amassing a full collection of items in said pattern, or is it acceptable to mix and match? Some women seem to find a pattern they like and that’s all they buy. I, on the other hand, just wing it by grabbing things here and there as the mood strikes me. I figure I can get away with it by saying I’m just a Vera Bradley beginner and don’t know any better. Vera fans, I’m counting on you to weigh in here and enlighten us as to the proper course of action.

If you’re into Vera, you should definitely try to get here for the sale. Like the Indy 500 or Mardi Gras, it’s the kind of thing everyone should see and experience at least once. Bring your sister, your mom or a couple of friends along for the ride and make a weekend of it — there is tons of stuff to do in Fort Wayne besides the sale to round out your visit. Just book early or you won’t be able to get a hotel room.

There’s an interesting camaraderie that happens among the VB followers. You see women all over town proudly toting their purchases (automatic conversation starters) and swapping war stories about the sale. A couple gals stopped me in the elevator at my hotel to admire one of my new totes, asking questions about the pattern that I’m afraid I couldn’t answer. As I exited and the doors closed behind me, I could hear them snickering to themselves “Rookie!”

For more info:

http://www.verabradley.com/

Role reversal

In a curious turn of events, hubby has been jobhunting during the past month and I’ve been the temporary breadwinner, busy full-time working on various freelance writing assignments. No complaints, though. I’ve been lucky enough to receive some pretty plum jobs that have allowed me to write about two of my favorite subjects — food and travel. The only real downsides to this situation are that 1) I haven’t had as much time as I’d like lately to spend with my little guy and 2) I’ve barely been cooking at all.

Have to say, hubby has really embraced the whole domestic scene and is doing a great job at keeping the house running like a well-oiled machine, including meal preparation. On one recent occasion, I happened to walk in to get a glass or something out of the cabinet while he was cooking and was promptly ordered to “get out of MY kitchen.” This may be taking things a LITTLE too far…

Hubby had a few solid dishes under his belt to begin with, but he’s really taken them to a new level over the past few weeks. He’s definitely got the homemade pizza thing nailed. A neighbor and I were enjoying a glass of wine on the back patio during a warm evening about two weeks ago when hubby decided to whip one up. You should have seen her face when he brought it out, hot, steaming and fragrant from the oven. She was so impressed, she called the next day to ask him for tips so she could make one at her house.

hubby's homemade pepperoni pizza

Hubby uses store-bought refrigerated crust, but I fully expect that it’s only a matter of time before he’s cranking out his own from scratch. I haven’t even witnessed what he does to make his ‘za so good, but I believe it involves simply tomato paste, cheese, pepperoni and the lightest drizzle of olive oil. A sprinkling of the herbes de Provence I purchased on our last visit to France in the fall seems to be the secret ingredient. I’m telling ya, that little packet I bought at a street market in Aix for a couple of euros has proven to possess damn near magical qualities — a little pinch utterly transforms everything from roasted meat and veggies to pasta sauce. I’m tempted to try it in muffins or scones. If you ever see an herbes de Provence blend in the supermarket, pick up a jar and try it for yourself in almost any savory dish. You won’t be sorry.

But I digress, back to bragging about my husband… the other dish he’s really been jazzed about perfecting lately is pot pie. This is sort of an unlikely fixation for him; he’s never requested or even mentioned an affinity for pot pie prior to eating a chicken version he proclaimed awesome at the Red Lion Grog House in Fountain Square a few weeks ago.

Again, using plain old store-bought pie crust, he’s been able to produce some interesting and delicious results. First, a lightly sauced chicken pot pie stuffed with shredded meat, chopped carrots and celery. Even better, though, is his beef version, made using his Guinness beef stew recipe, which I already love. Playing around with presentation, his latest attempt included some little ceramic ramekins he filled with the stew and covered with rounds of dough, and also some mini-pies that made using muffin tins. I liked the ramekins, I thought they would be adorable for a fancy dinner party, but hubby preferred the muffin versions, saying they reminded him more of the authentic pies he’s eaten in England. No matter, both were delicious.

adorable individual pot pies

muffin-tin pot pies

With several big assignments now turned in and off my plate, my freelance schedule looks to be lightening up a hair. Hopefully I’ll have enough breathing room to revisit my pots, pans and knives this week and make sure they haven’t forgotten me. If I can wrestle hubby out of “his” kitchen, that is…

Macaron madness

According to the food media, macarons are the new cupcake. I, for one, am completely happy to jump on this bandwagon in support. When I say macaron, I’m not talking about those outdated mounds of coconut and egg white your grandma used to make; I’m referring to the beautiful little silver dollar-sized mouthfuls of deliciousness you find in France. These little beauties have made their way across the pond, and are steadily making a name for themselves right here in Indianapolis. You can find them around town without too much trouble — Circle City Sweets and Taste are two locations that immediately come to mind.

I was first taken with les belles macarons during our visit to Paris nearly two years ago, and was happy to make their reacquaintance during a long weekend there in November. Within the windows of every patisserie we walked past, and there were MANY, there they were. Mouthwatering rainbows of the tempting gem-like little cookies in all flavors and colors. I only wish I could have tasted them all, but at a euro or so each, I had to be somewhat selective about sampling.

In simplest terms, a macaron is a flat meringue cookie sandwich. The cookies themselves have a shatteringly thin glassy surface that gives way to a slightly chewy interior and some sort of sinful filling in the middle. Chocolate cookies with chocolate ganache, pistachio, lemon, berries, mocha — the possibilities are endless, as you saw if you watched the inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Morgan turned out a “red hot” macaron with chocolate filling, and a blackberry version that looked divine.

Last night, we ended up hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve get-together with our neighbor friends down the street, and I decided macarons would be a lovely addition to our hors d’oeuvres table. Since I’d already put together some chocolate custards as a sweet treat, I chose to create a vanilla bean macaron with raspberry filling. Armed with a recipe from the current issue of Bon Appetit and encouraged by two YouTube macaron demonstrations, I started plotting my approach.

On paper, macarons look deceptively simple to make, but hold your horses. It’s not as easy as it sounds to pull them off and come away with the elusive “foot” on the bottoms that allows you to correctly sandwich the cookies together.

There are really only three ingredients for the cookie part of the program — powdered sugar, egg whites and almond flour — plus whatever flavoring agents you might want to incorporate. Now here’s the first challenge: almond flour is not a commonly available ingredient. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what it was, although the Bon Appetit recipe said it was sometimes just labeled as ground almonds. A trip to the Marsh baking aisle uncovered barley flour, spelt flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour and several shelves full of other specialty flours, but no almond flour. Hmph. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s came to my rescue. I quickly located a bag of almond meal that I assumed was what I wanted. $3.99 later, I was appropriated supplied and ready to bake.

Here’s the drill, you sift the almond flour/meal with the powdered sugar (not as easy as it sounds because the almonds tend to gunk up the sieve), then you whip the room-temp egg whites with a tiny bit of sugar until they hit the medium peak stage (I added the vanilla bean here). Fold the almond-powdered sugar into the egg whites in stages until just combined, then carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag. (A Baggie with the corner cut out will do in a pinch if you don’t have a pastry bag in your culinary arsenal.)

Pipe the batter onto a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet in 1/2-inch blobs about an inch and a half apart and then leave them be for about 30 minutes. They will spread out and become very flat, but don’t worry. This is what you want. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and put them in the oven immediately – the YouTube demo said to wait until the surface is slightly hardened and you can touch it with your finger without it sticking. Something about doing this helps them bake up the right way.

While you wait, you can prepare your filling. In my case, I simmered fresh raspberries with sugar, cornstarch and a little orange juice until thickened, then strained the mixture to remove the seeds.

Once they’re “gelled,” the macarons bake at 290-300 degrees for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When they come out, cool them on the sheet and then carefully peel them off the parchment paper. Spread a little filling on each side and stick them together to create the sandwiches. Voila – macarons!

my vanilla bean macarons with raspberry filling

I definitely need more practice piping so all my cookies come out consistently the same size, but overall, I was pretty darn pleased with my first shot at macarons. The texture seemed appropriately delicate and the flavor was good, although the almonds kinda overpowered the vanilla beans. I’m already daydreaming about new combinations to try next time.

Wishing you all a deliciously happy 2011!!!!

Happy New Year!