Raclette Grilling Gets the Party Started

Ever been to a party where more than one guest is face planted in a smart phone? You may have even seen an array of people assembled at a party and almost everyone is looking down at their phones, scrolling with one hand and drink in the other. I just hosted a party that would have been device free except for the guests taking pictures of dinner because they were having fun making it. We all cooked dinner together on raclette grills.

Guests preparing dinner on a Velata raclette grill.
Guests preparing dinner on a Velata raclette grill.

This tradition stems from Europe, but we made it our own with Gulf shrimp, Atlantic salmon and chicken, which we seasoned with Velata spice rubs. The shrimp cooked in the little raclette pans under the grill. We also grilled veggies on the granite grill top. I used to host parties by cooking a main dish and several sides. This would take me a few hours ahead of time, at least. Then, the challenge was figuring out how to keep things warm to serve to guests at exactly the same time or worry that buffet options were getting cold.

Guests enjoyed the simplicity of the menu and the festive no bake cheesecake dessert,
Guests enjoyed the simplicity of the menu and the festive no bake cheesecake dessert,

With a raclette meal, guests pick what they want to put on the grill, start cooking and pulling the food straight from the grill. This action creates immediate mingling and chatting among guests who did not previously know each other. Seeing my guests relaxed and interacting makes me feel good as hostess. I also know they are really enjoying their food. Once everyone was munching on the meat, fish and veggies, which included asparagus, zucchini and red peppers, I got the crepe maker going. That too encouraged participation as guests took turns making the crepes.

The Velata crepe maker simply picks up the batter and evenly cooks crepes on a nonstick surface.
The Velata crepe maker simply picks up the batter and evenly cooks crepes on a nonstick surface.

We drizzled crepes with raspberry syrup and guests chose how to eat them: savory with chicken or sweet with melted chocolate from a fondue pot. The only things I prepared ahead of time were the mini cheesecakes. There are a lot of options for a raclette menu to get your guests engaged at the party.

The bright colors of the vegetables on the raclette grill add flair to a party.
The bright colors of the vegetables on the raclette grill add flair to a party.

You could serve fajitas/tacos, Korean BBQ or a Mediterranean mixed grill. I wanted the guests to taste Velata ingredients as well as enjoy the Velata cookware. The mini cheesecakes were mixed with Velata No Bake Cheesecake. I prepared the Classic flavor, but Velata also makes Key Lime and Caramel Apple No Bake Cheesecake.

The grilling was easy with the raclette grill and fresh ingredients.
The grilling was easy with the raclette grill and fresh ingredients.

The grocery list was simple: fish, meat, strawberries, blueberries, bell pepper, asparagus, spinach, and Velata cheese dip for the fondue, Velata Premium Belgian chocolate for fondue, Velata crepe mix, Velata Raspberry syrup and Velata spice rubs. What I liked best about this party was being able to focus all my energy on enjoying the guests’ company instead of being stuck in the kitchen alone, worrying about pots and pans. At one point, a colander came out of the cabinet, but it was a fashion accessory.

The guests were really hands on in the kitchen and happy to help the hostess.
The guests were really hands on in the kitchen and happy to help the hostess.

Admittedly, there have been times when I felt exhausted by hosting a party because of the work that went into preparations. Or, I worried if guests got to know each other. The raclette grill party alleviated both of those issues. We cooked and chatted together the whole time. My voice was hoarse from talking to all the guests. It was really so nice to just enjoy our guests and know they were enjoying each other, the grilling and the food.

If you want to know more about hosting a Velata tasting party, contact me at thesageleopard@gmail.com.

Bon Appetit.

The Sage Leopard

Sausage and spinach lasagna (psst, leftovers reincarnation)

Here’s my approach to cooking: I left a client meeting this afternoon and drove down the main road toward the house. The supermarket rose on the horizon, but if I stayed on the road, I would beat the rush hour traffic. My mind’s eye explored the fridge and I recalled the leftover jalapeno cheese sausage. My mind then scanned the pantry, where a half-package of no-boil lasagna sheets awaited. For the filling, I knew we had ricotta and parmesan cheese. The fridge also contained a half bag of spinach. Apparently, the fridge already held all the answers. Well, at least it told me what to make for dinner: lasagna.

Lasagna with sausage and spinach
Lasagna with sausage and spinach

For the tomato sauce, my from scratch recipe is really fast: sauté in olive oil a few cloves of freshly chopped garlic with about 1/3 of a cup diced sweet onion. Once golden, add a big can of plum tomatoes (28 oz.). Season with salt and pepper, and simmer for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, I diced the two links of leftover sausage. Then, I mixed 15 oz. of ricotta cheese in a bowl with one egg. To prepare the spinach, I put it on a microwave safe cooking plate and chopped it up with a chef’s knife. I covered it with a couple of wet paper towels and nuked it for three minutes. Now, it was assembly time. While the oven preheated to 375 degrees, I greased a casserole dish with canola spray. Here’s the order: ladle some tomato sauce on the bottom. Lay down lasagna sheets to cover the bottom. Use a spatula to spread a third of the ricotta mixture down. Sprinkle on diced sausage. Spread over that with spinach.  Ladle on more tomato sauce. Repeat that series once more. Finally, cover with lasagna sheets and ladle that top with tomato sauce. Sprinkle top with ample amounts of chopped fresh parsley. Lastly, grate parmesan cheese over as the finishing touch. Bake 25 minutes, then let rest for 15 minutes on the stovetop. How easy was that?

Bon Appetit.

The Sage Leopard

Savory crepes paired with grilled chicken

I live in Texas, land of the breakfast taco, so crepes aren’t always front of mind when it comes to cooking at home. But, why not? They both have strong traditions as street food and I found an easy way to make crepes. Voila, a crepe maker. This is a very reasonably priced speciality tool and could serve other purposes. Think warming tortillas or making grilled cheese sandwiches.

The Velata crepe maker simply picks up the batter and evenly cooks crepes on a nonstick surface.
The Velata crepe maker simply picks up the batter and evenly cooks crepes on a nonstick surface.

The Velata crepe maker now comes in white and is on sale this month for $49.50 vs. the regular $55. This crepes dinner came together very quickly after an evening workout. I left the gym and popped into the grocery store to pick up chicken tenders, asparagus, mushrooms and spinach. My boyfriend set the chicken on one side of the raclette grill to cook, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.

While grilling chicken and asparagus, we melted cheese in a raclette pan.
While grilling chicken and asparagus, we melted cheese in a raclette pan.

I set the asparagus on the other side of the grill and sauteed the mushrooms in a small pan. (Come to think of it, they could have gone on the grill too to simplify things further.)

I had pre-made the batter before heading out so that the bubbles would settle while the bowl sat in the fridge. I grabbed the crepe maker by the handle and dipped it upside down in its accompanying batter dish to cover the cooking surface.

The Velata crepe maker includes a perfectly sized dish for the batter.
The Velata crepe maker includes a perfectly sized dish for the batter.

Gently pulling up, I flipped the crepe maker and placed it on its cooking platform. The light turns red to indicate it is connected and cooking, Soon enough, the light clicks off to indicate the crepe is done. I repeated this process to create a stack of beautiful, light crepes. Meanwhile, we melted a little bit of Vermont white cheddar cheese in raclette pans that are placed under the grilling top for a broiling effect.

Chicken, asparagus, spinach and mushrooms combine for savory and fresh tasting crepe fillings.
Chicken, asparagus, spinach and mushrooms combine for savory and fresh tasting crepe fillings.

Very quickly, dinner came together as we topped the crepes with grilled chicken, cheese, asparagus, mushrooms, fresh spinach (right out of the bag) and a drizzle of Velata raspberry syrup. It was heavenly. It was also filling without feeling heavy and was a perfect way to enjoy making and eating a weeknight dinner together.

Bon Appetit

The Sage Leopard

Quality Time is a Step Away, Online or Outside

Am I the only one who uses Pinterest for therapy? A friend told me she doesn’t have any hobbies to pin and therefore doesn’t really get the platform. I explained you can just pick categories of things that make you happy, label them as boards and pin to them. My categories include cooking & baking, gardening ideas, “Jeeps for Keeps,” decor, and “Higgins,” which is a collection of beautiful dog pictures that remind me of The Sage Leopard.

Ladybug landing
Ladybug landing
A new patio tomato plant awaits true springtime
A new patio tomato plant awaits true springtime

During a particularly stressful time a couple of years ago, I would find myself scrolling through Pinterest during my lunch break and getting little dopamine surges when coming across things I loved: Lilly Pulitzer prints, cute dogs, cool Jeeps, etc. To be sure, these scrolling excursions were virtual and represented vicarious enjoyment, e.g., ooh, how much fun it would be to drive that Jeep. Or that one, etc.

I love Pinterest, but an even more satisfying way to bring on the dopamine is to step outside. Think about how much your perspective changes after walking the dog around the block. Or, stepping out to clip some herbs. I feel an amazing satisfaction just from placing a cherry tomato plant on the patio.

Moon rising over palm tree
Moon rising over palm tree
Armadillo guarding planter with sage (and basil seedlings)
Armadillo guarding planter with sage (and basil seedlings)

Recently, I was heading out for a girls’ night and still felt a little tense from the work day. I stepped outside into the garden to play with The Sage Leopard. In short order, a ladybug landed on me. I looked up to notice the moon rising. Awash in a newly restored calm, I headed back toward the house and found myself smiling at an armadillo, who reminded me how Texas changed me.

The Sage Leopard

 

Craft Your Own Happiness in 15 Minutes

We tend to stress ourselves out, even with things that should enhance our lives, such as cooking dinner. Why are you viewing your home life as a series of chores rather than a set of little luxuries? What if you cooked dinner on a granite-topped grill and took in the moment? Luxurious, right?

One of our luxuries is time. I’ve discovered I can best utilize it by marking the time. For instance, I’d been procrastinating on finishing a sewing project because when I returned to the machine it was jamming up the thread. I brought an egg timer into the sewing room and gave myself 15 minutes to figure it out. Re-reading the manual helped too. Soon enough, I had the machine rolling again and with relative ease, finished the project: a duvet for a doggie bed. The fabric had been measured and cut, twice, a month earlier. It was easy to assemble and the result makes me and the dogs happy.

Chester lounging on the swanky home crafted doggie duvet
Chester lounging on the swanky home crafted doggie duvet

I picked up this 15 minutes idea from my physician to whom I complained about how hard it can be to motivate to go the gym. He suggested I convince myself by thinking it will only be 15 minutes and then find myself putting in a 30-minute workout. Last night, I needed to de-clutter my mind and opted to take 15 minutes to meditate. It may have been 20 minutes I laid on a yoga mat breathing mindfully and it really helped.

Dinner should never be viewed as a chore and it too can be prepared relatively quickly. Here are two examples. Sunday night in this household is all about The Walking Dead. I used to make elaborate meals for this event. This time, I sliced up a chicken breast and marinated it in a plastic storage bag in rosemary, Meyer lemon juice and sliced garlic cloves.

Salmon and chicken grilling on granite
Salmon and chicken grilling on granite

I sliced off the skin from a filet of salmon. All I did to cook the meat and fish was to place it on the hot granite atop the raclette grill. I assembled a salad with lettuce and some deli salad sides (Greek olives and sliced roasted red pepper). Voila, a delicious dinner. In that instance, I had just returned from the grocery store with fresh ingredients.

Quick salad with a little help from the deli buffet
Quick salad with a little help from the deli buffet

But, I also recently discovered that the granite grill is great for cooking up canned vegetables. I rubbed on some olive oil and then let the grill work its magic on butter beans, green beans and diced (drained) tomatoes.

Butter beans, green beans and diced tomatoes
Butter beans, green beans and diced tomatoes

Salt, pepper and parmesan cheese brought it all together and to the table with ease. That’s what I mean when I talk about crafting your own happiness.

The Sage Leopard

How Texas Changed Me

Camouflage Crocs, a hound dog, paintings of South Texas wildlife, eating my own venison. How did this happen to me? You see, before I moved to Texas, I could have been easily characterized, or caricatured, as some kind of liberal, East Coast-educated media elite. I’m from a New Jersey suburb, went to a small private college in Virginia, and rode mass transit with the best of the urban cockroaches of Manhattan (that’s a compliment to those urbane warriors). I knew nothing of the Texas Gulf Coast waters, Buccees, kolaches, duck hunting in Katy, backing in a pickup truck, kayaking with alligators, breakfast tacos, let alone breakfast tacos with desebrada.

How did all this come to pass? By moving to Texas, I learned it is possible to change. To truly change. And just how fantastically liberating that can be. I’ve been here since 2006 and still don’t feel that I’ve fully realized the opportunities here.

Sunset over bayou in Houston
Sunset over bayou in Houston

CHANGE YOURSELF

Granted, changing yourself is possible anywhere, at any time. It just might have been easier to do so by making a gigantic geographic departure to shed some of my old identity. That is not to say I don’t retain my personal history and attributes, but I don’t let my past constrain me anymore either. When I first got here, the sky seemed bigger. It sounds so clichéd, I know. The first rain storm dropped huge torrents on my windshield. I couldn’t see and was scared. You see, I’ve been afraid of a lot of things as I tend to get anxious. If my mother asked me, “oh, what’s the worst thing that can happen?,” I would engage in a risk analysis about the very worst thing that could possibly happen. As one friend said, that’s no way to live.

RUNNING TRAPS

But, I had lived that way for a long time. Until recent years and, hey, even recent weeks and days. This risk aversion has always driven me to cover all the bases, run all the traps and prepare for any eventuality. It is also exhausting and often useless in the face of all of life’s unanticipated hurdles. How did I make this philosophical change?

For the longest time, I have taken the approach of powering through challenges. I’d pride myself on my grit. And enjoyed it. This came from childhood sports. As an adult, I’d swim laps after work and ride my bike on weekends on the trails in and around DC. Along the Mall, along the Potomac, up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The sights were amazing. The scents of flower and fauna wonderful and relaxing. And, some of those hills in Rock Creek Park required powering through. The bike rides relaxed me and inspired me.

Then, a job transfer took me to Houston and I moved to the Galleria. I had no idea where to ride my bicycle. I did not like Memorial Park for bike riding, though I came to enjoy jogging there. A colleague told me about an outdoors club that includes group bike rides. This led to a lot of bike rides and new friendships. A couple of years later, a new guy showed up at one of our outings. I could not help but notice he was handsome, sweet and intelligent. I tried to ignore all that as I was purposely avoiding dating at that time. Once we started talking about bike rides, my intent to ignore him was doomed.

He had done the MS 150 several times and I’d been interested in the Houston-Austin route as a can’t-miss Texas experience. Six months later, he and I embarked on the MS150 training season. This guy also convinced me to get on the back of his motorcycle. Me, the girl with anxieties. Well, yeah, now I have a motorcycle license. This guy also suggested I take a day off and go hog hunting with him. I viewed this as a cultural curiosity I should explore and went. Yeah, well now I am an experienced deer, hog and duck hunter.

Growing up, swimming was always a part of life. Yet, I had no exposure to scuba. Once again, the handsome guy suggested it as well as a friend from work. Sea Sports Scuba on Westheimer – check it out. Now, this was an utterly different activity. It is dangerous, it requires skills and strength, but the old powering through approach would exhaust and potentially kill a diver. Scuba is methodical. It is careful. It is immensely relaxing. During class, it became apparent that the most efficient breathing is just like yoga breathing. Slow. Relaxed. If a situation arises with equipment or your environs, you think first, then try one thing or the other, following a set of trained procedures.

You just stay relaxed and mindful. I’ve been coming around to learn that I cannot power through challenges or any activities. That I should instead take it all in as well as solve problems mindfully.

My decision to move to Houston set off a chain of personal decisions I made to force myself expand my horizons and enrich my life. Maybe Texas did not change me. But moving here did provide the impetus for me to change myself.

The Sage Leopard

Valentines Ushering in a Spring Picnic

We experience moments that define us and stay with us like encouraging friends. The first time I visited Galveston, I drove across the causeway with the windows down, radio blaring and felt the sun and wind embrace me on what I recall was a warm autumn day. A jolt of happiness came over me and I was pleasantly surprised. This morning, almost 10 years later, I awoke to a warm Valentine’s Day. I asked my boyfriend if spring has arrived in southeast Texas. We concurred it has, which is a pleasant surprise. To celebrate, I planted Cherokee tomato plants in the side garden bed and placed a cherry tomato plant in a pot on the patio.

Heirloom tomato plants and pepper plants in raised garden bed.
Heirloom tomato plants and pepper plants in raised garden bed.

To me, these actions signify choosing happiness, deciding how to shape life. Even when there will always be other factors and incidents driving our lives, we can choose to surround ourselves with things we love. We were planning on taking the dogs to a park and having a picnic, but it was too windy for a picnic. Instead, I decided to bake pizza bread and serve an antipasto as dinner. For the bread, I use Bobby Flay’s pizza dough recipe and then shape the dough into bread rounds.

Pizza bread rounds
Pizza bread rounds

Bake at 375 degrees for about 15-18 minutes. (Helpful hint: place bread rounds on cookie sheets greased with olive oil, then brush the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt before placing in the oven.) For the antipasto, which I announced was an indoors picnic, I placed baby arugula on a platter as a bed. I then added kalamata olives, pepperoncini, watercress, roasted red pepper slices, chunks of marinated artichokes, pieces of fresh mozzarella, and slices of Genoa salami and prosciutto.

Antipasto, cannellini bean salad and fresh pizza bread
Antipasto, cannellini bean salad and fresh pizza bread

Dinner was served as a buffet with hunks of pizza bread, the antipasto platter and a cannellini bean salad (recipe below). This is my favorite way to bring together a meal: on an impromptu basis. It is very easy to make any day a celebration. Just include fresh, colorful ingredients.

The Sage Leopard

Cannellini bean salad: take a jar of beans and rinse in a colander. Diced mini bell peppers, radishes, two cloves of garlic and a peeled and seeded cucumber. Fold those in a bowl with chopped baby arugula. Toss with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Appetizers reborn in pasta with veggies & prosciutto

What to do with the leftover crudités and a package of prosciutto from Super Bowl Sunday? Pasta. Pasta is the answer to many of life’s questions.

Sautéing garlic and prosciutto
Sautéing garlic and prosciutto

I sautéed the prosciutto in olive oil and garlic, then splashed in a little Chardonnay. Next, I folded in chopped celery and peppers. Once those softened and melded, I added parboiled broccoli and carrots, after slicing through them a bit.  At this point, I added a pat of butter as well as salt and pepper. While that cooked on low, I brought a pot of water to a boil for a half package of rotini.

Veggie pasta (shhh, it's from leftovers)
Veggie pasta (shhh, it’s from leftovers)

The meal came together with shredded parmesan and chopped parsley. This is my favorite kind of food: brightly colored, cheesy and over pasta.

The Sage Leopard

Seeking sunshine, veggies and casserole

“I will emerge!,” proclaimed a sign at butcher shop in the neighborhood where I grew up. The butcher spun off from a family business to open his own food specialties shop and he posted the sign as motivation to get the business rolling as a going concern. It worked. That, and the fact his Italian sausages were delicious and all the meats were of the finest quality. Plus, he had an amazing personality that customers liked as much as the food. I’m reminded of his mantra as I attempt to emerge from what feels like hibernation thanks to two weeks of a head cold. Whenever I am feeling encumbered or withdrawn, I need to boldly emerge. For instance, I gave a Toastmasters speech today to an Open House to promote my club and advocate for excellence in public speaking. It is as if the only thing that will make me emerge from pajamas after I am sick is to do something big. I am admittedly way behind on something else big and that is training for a 150-mile, two-day bike ride coming up in April. Normally, people start training for this with 30- and 40-ish mile rides in January. Everyone else I know, save for one woman, has already been out there, peddling in crisp air with the sun on their faces and building stamina. Meanwhile, I have been home, coughing, drinking tea and eating crackers. That changes tomorrow. The aforementioned fellow straggler and I are planning to ride 20 miles tomorrow rather than 40-something miles. It has been two weeks since I got this cold. Week 1 included medication. Week 2 has been haunted by a lingering, nasty cough. Last weekend, I was not healthy enough to ride, but I did feel good enough to step outside. I had wondered if I could handle just a little weeding. The fresh air did wonders. After a couple of hours, I had cleaned up some garden beds, transplanted some flowers and began sets of seeds for cucumbers, watermelon, bell peppers, delphinium, echinacea and foxglove. toasty carrotsThis week, my appetite awaked after a series of soup dinners and I grilled vegetables. Carrots, bell peppers, squash and zucchini hit the grill a few different nights for very fresh dinners. To take the edge off the chill in the air, I baked a parsley and cheese casserole. Embraced by warm food and welcomed by sunshine, I feel ready to emerge this weekend and really get rolling down the road for some good country bike rides.parsley casserole

Preparing ingredients for parsley & cheese casserole
Preparing ingredients for parsley & cheese casserole

Parsley and cheese casserole: Cooked rotini (half box), half of cup of freshly shredded parm, half a package of cheddar cheese dip, dollop of sour cream, can of cream of celery soup, freshly cut parsley (at least half a cup). While pasta is cooking, place chopped parsley and shredded cheese into a bowl. Mix in soup, cheese dip and sour cream. Fold in pasta and the spread mixture into greased casserole dish. Sprinking on dried onion flakes, Creole seasoning, paprika or whatever you fancy. Bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes until top is golden brown and the sides are bubbling.