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      It's 4:30 pm, almost the witching hour when children and pets go completely berserk. And for me it's the "itching hour" when I start to get the munchies.  I'm usually more of a salty/savory kind of a gal, but when I have a craving for sweets, there's nothing better than chocolate. 
      If you're a person who can't live without chocolate I'm sure you've got your "go to" favorites, where you get your fix.  I too have my favorites, and I also have some odd hang ups.  Since I'm forever "battling the bulge" I have some bizarre need to justify eating chocolate by making it a healthy choice.  Hence, my year long chocolate covered soy bean kick. It was so very nutritious: thanks to the soy they were full of protein, and the chocolate comes from a bean, and we all know how good the legume is for you, and to top it all off the cocoa is combined with milk...and you know how us ladies need that extra calcium!  Perhaps I missed my calling as a nutritionist?
      I also went through a phase where I had to have just one or two squares of this dark chocolate candy bar with cherries and almonds. After all it was dark chocolate, cardiologist recommended...and in my opinion it was made an even better choice when consumed with a glass of red wine.  This was clearly health food at it's best.  Unfortunately, I especially enjoyed eating my healthy combo while I watched one of my favorite programs, "The Biggest Loser."   Was I missing the boat on what that show is trying to inspire?  Perhaps I was, so I now have nothing more than a glass of water while watching the big fat losers shed more than my body weight collectively each week!  Man, do I ever have will power!

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       I've moved on, and my latest choice is the chocolate covered goji berry.  I didn't really know what a goji berry was, but I'd heard they were full of antioxidants, and surely good for me smothered in dark chocolate.  It turns out goji berries (aka wolf berries) do indeed have many positive health benefits and they even have a website all about their virtues as well a ways to purchase this "miracle" fruit.  All I know is if it's 4:30 and I need something to take the edge off before dinner...I eat a handful of these little morsels.

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      February is National Chocolate month and the Communal Pantry is gearing up to bring you tons of fabulously chocolaty chocolate recipes; some to work as aphrodisiacs perhaps, some to bake and give as tokens of love and some to quell your personal chocolate cravings.  Hopefully these Chocolate Crinkle Cookies will kick off National Chocolate month while helping you get your fix!

XOXO Martha

 
 
I've always loved school.  I used to be a teacher and I get a little jealous every September when my kids get to go back to school.  But the Astor Center in New York City has brought a whole new love of education into my life.  Classes that are hands on in cooking as well as eating or consuming cocktails has me begging to go to this school as often as I can!  A few weeks ago my hubby and I took a cooking class, but this trip was all about booze, for a class titled "The Cocktails that made Whiskey Famous."  
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This class was one of my Christmas presents from my dear hubby, though I'm suspicious of how much it was really for me since he's the big whiskey drinker!

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"School Supplies"


The classroom was was set up almost like a science symposium with a big screen at the head of the room with tiered seating for the "students."  Our "professor" was the renowned mixologist or or self proclaimed "sommelier of sprits," Elayne Duke, and our desks were set with "lab equipment" (bar tools and glasses) for our "experiments" (mixing cocktails).  This was about the best grown up classroom I'd ever been in.




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Class began with a welcome cocktail, The Roadster (click for the recipe).  It was quite tasty and it disappeared before I remembered to take a picture...though even the empty glass was pretty with the sugar rim and remaining orange peel garnish.  I'm sure many of my college courses could have been greatly improved if we'd been served welcome cocktails to kick off class.

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Elayne Duke is a woman to be envied.  She is beautiful, charming, and has arguably the best job on the planet: head mixologist for Diageo Wine and Spirits.  She creates cocktails for some of New York's finest restaurants, is much sought after for her expertise and yet she is incredibly down to earth and personable, even when speaking to a big crowd.  In short, we were in very good hands and really enjoyed all the history of whiskey, and details on how it's made.

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We were walked through a straight whiskey tasting of, Bulleit, Bulleit Rye, and George Dickel 12.  We were told how to hold the sip in our mouth, let it roll to the back of our tongue, take a breath in and out and finally swallow.  We learned why the back of your throat tingles and almost waters after eating or drinking some foods...it's the high acidity!  We got an intro to our bar tools and by that point I was ready to use them to start making some mixed drinks.

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Mr. Martha Muddling

The Mint Julep was our first "class project."  My hubby is a mean muddler so this drink was right up his alley.  It's also a very pretty drink, so I can completely understand why it's the perfect accessory to have in your hand at the Kentucky Derby.  Elayne told us that in Virginia in the 1700's they were a breakfast drink! (They all must have been half in the bag before lunch.) They were originally made with cognac, but in the 1930s they began being made "properly" with bourbon.  



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The Mint Julep
If you've lost count, we were up to 5 drinks by this time.  My hubby and I had been out to dinner prior to class (and were glad of it).  Whiskey is a strong drink and the lovely young couple sitting next to us was going to dinner after the class.  The wife was trying to eat as much cheese and bread as she could put away without ruining her appetite for dinner...but the booze were catching up to her for sure, and I'm afraid she was looking a little green around the gills.  Her husband did confirm that the whiskey class had indeed been his Christmas gift, she was along for the ride.

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The Manhattan
Drink number 6, was the Manhattan.  A classic drink that makes me think of my grandfather as well as my parent's friends.  This drink also brought us quite a lot of great information. First, what exactly is Vermouth? It's a wine infused with herbs and grain alcohol. The second thing is a biggie: you should never shake an all alcohol drink.  James Bond telling the bartender, "Shaken, not stirred." for his martini...actually had it all wrong!  When you shake a drink with all booze, the strongest flavor will overpower the whole drink and the more subtle flavors will be lost.  Stirring, gently folds and mixes them together. Third lesson: if your drink is all booze add ice to the mixing glass first. If your drink has citrus in it...ice should always be added last.  (Six drinks in, plus the wine at dinner...and Martha is still taking good notes?  I think I really am becoming a professional drinker!)

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The Whiskey Smash
We wrapped the evening up with a Whiskey Smash, perhaps aptly chosen since several students would be leaving class Whiskey Smashed.  We had the huegest, juiciest lemons to make this drink and our finished products needed extra simple syrup to make them less tart and more palatable.  I thought they tasted kind of like fruity pebbles...a favorite breakfast staple from my childhood! (I know, I really was gourmet even as a kid.)
After thanking Elayne for a wonderful evening, we packed up our notes, collected out coats and poured ourselves into a car waiting to take us home.  (Please note that taking a car home is the only way to go!)  I highly recommend this or any class taught by Elayne Duke, at the Astor Center.  But if "school" is just not your thing...at least do some "home work" and try all the great drink recipes I took notes on in class.

 
 
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Friday night, the cook (me) is off duty!  Usually I do take out pizza and call it dinner, but last Friday I got lucky.  I headed into NYC to run some errands and go to a Whiskey Class at the Astor Center and I played my cards just right....leaving just enough time between the errands and the class to go out to dinner.  My husband couldn't refuse me...I had to have something in my stomach before downing several glasses of whiskey after all!  

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With the sun setting on Manhattan, we headed to one of my hubby's favorite places, Lupa on Thompson Street down in the village, just a few blocks away from Washington Square Park.  It's a Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich place, so you know the food and wine will be good and the atmosphere is very relaxed and almost homey.

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 There's a big section of cured meats you can order as an appetizer and it's actually what brought us to Lupa the first time.  My husband read an article about Mario Batali's father who makes his own speck (a thin cut smoked italian ham, pictured) at his shop, Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, in Seattle.  Instead of flying to the Pacific North West we opted for going to the Lupa in "The Village."

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The food is gourmet, but unpretentious.  I couldn't resist having beets with a pistachio sauce as my appetizer.  Probably really easy to make, but stunning to look at and delicious.
We both opted for the special, fresh pasta with a duck and vegetable ragu. 

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 Their regular menu isn't particularly large, but full of great choices, though I often end up with one of their many specials.  (I get roped in hearing a dish described by a waiter!)  
My only disclaimer: if you order wine by the glass be prepared for a HUGE glass of wine.  They consider 1/3 of the bottle to be "a glass."  We forgot, and actually had to leave our glasses half full....after all this dinner was just the warm up before Whiskey School!

 
 
Holey Muffins!!  What went wrong?!
      Usually a full oven makes me a happy mama.  But, today just wasn't my day.  I should have sensed it when the egg I was trying to photograph rolled off the counter and went, "splat!"  
      I got this new banana bread recipe from a friend and wanted to try it.  I'd tasted hers and it was delish!  She also told me it used brown sugar instead of white and before the holidays I bought WAY more brown sugar than I ended up needing, so anything that calls for brown sugar is on my list to bake nowadays. 
      The recipe for this banana bread is very simple and I didn't anticipate any trouble making it, BUT any time you make something new, you've got to realize it could be a learning experience.  C'mon you all have stained pages in your cookbooks with little notes written in the margins.  And you know how much I enjoy the handwritten recipe cards from my relatives, especially the ones with the advice scrawled sidewise up the card.  I just wish I'd had some advice or had better sense when I was baking these.  
      You see, I was in a bit of a rush and needed to get the bread in and out of the oven before school pick-up (I'm sure you've been there!). So, the butter was still a little stiff, but it creamed nicely with the brown sugar.  I could not believe how many cups of bananas the recipe called for and used a tremendous number of frozen bananas from my stash, plus the three sitting on the counter.  They were thawed (mostly), but were still really cold.  (A great trick for mashing bananas is to use a potato masher, especially if you like the bananas to be lumpy!)  I was using my kitchen aid mixer instead of hand mixing since I was making a double batch....and in a rush...and here's where the mistake happened:  I didn't realize that when I added the bananas to the creamed sugar it chilled big chunks of the sugar to the sides of the mixer and they never got incorporated into the batter.  Everything looked mixed, but when I took the bowl off the mixer and stirred...there were big butter/sugar blobs.  I tried breaking the big clumps up the best I could, but knew there would be sugar pockets in the batter. C'est la vie!  The muffins were not the prettiest.  They had little craters with sugar oozing out. Luckily they also happened to be scrumptious and very moist.    
      I now have an asterisk and a note written up the side of my newest recipe card.  And I know that next time, and the time after that, the recipe will get better and better.  There's definitely a learning curve when you're tweaking and making a recipe your own. And now you know how to make "Holey" muffins as well!
               
Enjoy XOXO  Martha

Click HERE for the Banana Bread Recipe
 
 
  My niece Claire was about 6 years old when she said, 
"I like the idea of being a vegetarian, but I can't be one because steak meat is just too delicious."  
A wise little foodie, even at a tender age.  
Here in my household we enjoy red meat, but we don't eat it that often.  First of all it's not the leanest source of protein and secondly since I like to buy organic meat, it can get pricey. As you've learned, from my past blogs, london broil is one of our go to Sunday Family dinner choices.  When it's fresh all we usually do is dash a little olive oil and salt and pepper on before we throw it on the grill.  There is usually no need to fancy up (or cover up) the taste of a good steak, though there are two acceptions: 
#1 When it's a cheaper, tougher cut of meat that needs some tenderizing or flavoring (think stew meat, flank steak or anything you'd use for shish-ka-bobs) and 
#2 When you've defrosted frozen meat and you think it might need some extra "umpf."
Organic meat isn't on sale very often, so when it is, I stock up.  Organic London Broil at $4.99 a pound is a deal I could not pass up.  Defrosted london broil will be our dinner with a little extra "umpf" coming from a simple marinade.  Add mushrooms and onions, baked potatoes and green beans and it's looking like a real stick to your ribs, home cooked meal.   
Enjoy! XO  Martha
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Simple Marinade
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 an onion diced
1 Tablespoon each of:
oregeno, thyme, rosemary, & parseley (or any other kind of herb you like)
salt and pepper

Sometimes I defrost the meat in a ziplock bag with the marinade in the fridge.  

Not sure how to cook London Broil?  The easiest way is on the grill, you can use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temp reaches 130 for it to be cooked medium. But, I generally figure if the meat is 1-2 inches thick, 6-8 minuets on the first side and 5-7 on the second side turns out about right.  Also make sure to let your meat rest for 5-10 minutes before you cut it.
 
 
Winter is the perfect time to make guacamole!  
What?  That sounds just crazy, doesn't it? But it is true. Reason one: In summer months when you're making margarita's and trying to prepare fresh guacamole last minute, it just won't work, because you can never get a properly ripened avocado.  (In July the avocados are always super green and I never think ahead to let one ripen ahead of time! Very pretty but not ready to become guac.)  Reason two: Football season.  Watching football always calls for chips, salsa and guacamole.  And most importantly, Reason three:  the avocados in the store are usually brown...primed for mashing!  Follow these simple steps and you will have a big bowl of guacamole...that will disappear in minutes because it's delish.   XOXO Martha
2-3 Ripe Avocados
1 Tomato
1 Onion (small to medium)
A Large handful of fresh Cilantro, chopped
1/2  Lime
Salt and Pepper to taste


Halve the avocados lengthwise, take the pit out and use a knife to dice the avocado up while it's still in the skin.  Use a spoon to scrape that green goodness into a big bowl.  Dice the tomato and onion, add to big bowl.  Make sure you remove the stems from the cilantro first and just chop up the leaves and add as much as you like to the big bowl.  Using a fork, start mashing up the avocado and mixing up the ingredients.  Squeeze the fresh lime juice on top and add plenty of salt and pepper to taste.  
 
 
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      On Christmas morning I was delighted to open a few surprises from my husband.  The most intriguing by far was a lobster cooking class he'd signed us up for at the Astor Center in NYC.  My first thought was, I guess he doesn't like the way I make lobster...this must be a hint?  Then he told me the class was for both of us.  Really?  My husband's biggest cooking accomplishment is pouring milk over cereal without spilling it.  Then he explained that the class involved cooking, as well as eating and pairing the lobster with wine.  Things were starting to come into focus.

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Peeking into the class next door, I thought about switching classes!

Last night it was cold.  I had a hard time motivating myself into the shower, then into real clothes instead of pajamas.  But I did it, and was on the 4:37 train into Manhattan, then a short cab ride took me to the Astor Center, a very groovy spot.  It's operated by the famous Astor Wines and Spirits, which used to be located on Astor Place, but they moved to a new locale (4th & Lafayette) to expand upon a wonderful vision of having a facility that could have a teaching space with kitchens to educate lovers of food and spirits...and also fill our bellies while we get a buzz on
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      The "Classroom Kitchen" was set up with tall chairs around a stainless steel table set with water glasses, recipe packet, a pencil and a freshly poured glass of Prosecco.  Good start, check that box!  The class was titled, 'A Lobster Primer: Hands-On Cooking & Wine Pairing', but I could already tell this was no run of the mill Lobster 101.  Our teacher and chef, Emily Peterson greeted us and immediately set a comfortable tone to the evening.  She divided us into two teams:  Team Lucy and Team Ethel.  Emily Peterson is one talented chef, teacher, writer, and above all very approachable and just plain likable.  (She had me at Lucy and Ethel.)  You should read more on the fabulous Emily Peterson at her website and blog The Gourmand & The Peasant, which is thoroughly delightful and a great cooking resource.
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Chef Emily Peterson, photo by Eric Caban
      We were all asked to introduce ourselves, and rate our cooking abilities on a scale of 1 to 10.  I rated myself a 7, based on the sheer volume of family cooking I've done and my husband gave himself a 1.  I thought we were both pretty honest and accurate, but not everyone in the class was quite as humble.  Our two, perfectly lovely (though delusional), teammates rated themselves an 8 and a 9 1/2.  I expected great things from them, only to find Ms. 9 1/2 missing when we began with dispatching and dismantling the lobsters.  Mr. 8 told me it was just too icky for her.  That was clue number one that Ms. 9 1/2 was more like Ms. 5 3/4, at best. Luckily, skill level really isn't as important as a willingness to get involved and learn in an evening like this one.
       After dispatching the lobsters, we put 8 whole ones on to boil and moved onto learning how to breakdown a "raw" lobster.  The hardest part of dealing with the newly departed is that they don't stop moving for up to 24 hours after they've died!  Chickens running with their heads cut off have nothing on the bodiless, flapping tail of a lobster!  The boiled lobsters were pronounced, "done" when you pulled on their antennae and they popped right off (about 10 minutes for the 1 1/4 lb. lobsters) and were plunged into large containers of ice water.
        While we moved to the back of the kitchen and got the lowdown on the other cooking ingredients, an amazing staff of inconspicuous helpers came and cleared our lobster cutting boards and replaced them.  When you're cooking and learning you kind of get into a focused zone, but circling around us the whole night were a wonderful team of people washing our dirty dishes, bringing us clean dish towels, etc.  And let's face it, cooking without cleaning up your own mess is just divine.
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Our other ingredients & Martha gutting lobster....not too "icky" at all!
      Each team had 4 dishes to prep for: Lobster & Corn Fritters with Chipolte-Lime Mayonnaise (I'm going to share this recipe with you!) Classic Lobster rolls, Lobster Poached in Gewurztraminer and Pear Nectar, and Lobster Bisque.  Chef Emily was more than happy to demonstrate how to professionally cut up peppers, onions, garlic, or whatever.  She included some great tips like adding a pinch of sea salt to garlic while you mince it to help give your knife some grip! 
 
      We, (Team Ethel) were on our own and had to use our recipe packet and divvy up all the prep work that had to be done before we started cooking.  Because it was first in the packet and included a lot of dicing, my hubby and I volunteered to do the prep for the fritters.  In hindsight, I should have read ahead and done the prep on one of the dishes I wasn't familiar with and was more complicated.  Ms. 9 1/2 was fascinated with a hand-held lemon juicer she had to use, as she'd never seen anything like it before.  (C'mon, really? You seriously rated yourself a 9 1/2?)  Another teammate (who rated himself a 4) was in charge of the lobster roll prep. He clearly left class rating a solid 6 based on his ability to read and follow directions alone, plus his dish was delish and he was a doll!  Mr. 8 did lobster bisque prep, kind of.  He somehow forgot the very clear instructions of making sure everything needed was placed in prep-bowls before we started cooking. Come cooking time, I spent a lot of time going back to the pantry box for bay leaves, butter, the cognac, and finding measuring spoons, etc., all for dear Mr. 8.  My husband on the other hand, was amazing.  I'll never finely dice another pepper again.  He wasn't fast, but the man's got skills he didn't even know about and the chipotle-lime mayo was simple but spectacular.
      One of the trickiest things for any cook is getting the timing right.  You want it all to be done, hot and ready at the same time.  To say that things are a bit more complicated with 12 cooks in the kitchen is an understatement.  Despite incredible organization and prep by all parties, cooking was a little nutty.  Cook tops, even professional ones, are only so big, and we all did some jockeying around while we stirred, browned, poached, or in my case fried, around the stove top and ovens.  My husband (clearly a solid 4 by this point) took on plating the food and we could hear all the Astor Center's worker bees setting the table and gearing up for eating and the wine parings.
Lobster 4 Ways + January 4th = 
Faltering New Years Resolutions
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      In the end, we all sat down to a feast of lobster four ways and five wine parings.  I was stuffed half way through, but despite my better judgement or my new year's resolutions, I managed to eat every bite.  And it was delicious.  Our wine educator, Tess, walked us through the pairings and we chatted about what we liked, what we thought tasted best together and how we'd use our 20% coupon for those wines down at Astor Wines & Spirits.
      Best of all it was a really great night with an eclectic group of "cooks" and lovers of food that ranged in ability, from a self proclaimed Mr. -4 to Ms. 9 1/2.  We also ranged in age (one celebrating his 70th birthday, another in college) and relationships (siblings, father and son, newlyweds) but ultimately were brought together sharing a meal.  A community of people getting together to share food and life.....hmmm...sounds familiar.  And I think a Communal Pantry foodie adventure or "field trip" will have to be in the works.


XOXO Martha

Click Here to Link to the recipe for Lobster & Corn Fritters with Chipotle-Lime Mayo