My Grandma’s Cookbook: a collection of vague recipes

I’m a bad blogger.  I didn’t post anything last week.  It’s a lame excuse, but the truth is, I just got busy.  I didn’t find the time to write, which sucks.   The thing I did manage to do, however, was make dinner for my sister, my brother-in-law, and my husband to celebrate Tim’s birthday.

It’s a tradition in our family to make the birthday boy or girl’s favorite meal to celebrate their day.   The problem is, that excluding my sister (Natalie) and her husband (Jack), everyone else in my family hates, and I mean HATES Tim’s favorite meal: Chicken Tika Masala.  My dad lived in England for a little while as a young adult and got burnt out on curry, fair enough.  And the rest of my family doesn’t like “spicy food,” which is a damn shame, because it’s divine.   image_6483441

We celebrated Tim’s birthday with the rest of the family separately.  The four of us, however, broke naan and ate delicious curry.  We drank a big ass bottle of Schramsberg (my favorite, as you know), ate cake and ice cream, played cards and laughed a whole lot.  It was the kind of cozy night in, with a big bowl of food and good people, that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside; and it got me thinking about why I love food so much.

How cool is it that food can not only nourish your body, but your soul?  How amazing that food is a part of a person’s history, and a person’s future.  How lucky are we that food is something that we can create memories around?  Food brings people together, it becomes a conversation starter, and at least for me, I associate times of happiness around meals that I eat.

Several years back one of my uncles put together a cookbook full of Vella and Sbarra (my paternal grandmother’s maiden name) recipes.  When it comes time to do some real Italian, soul cooking, I turn to this book.  This book includes our family meatball recipe, stuffed squid, anchovy sauce…all the really good shit.  Some recipes haven’t been made since my grandma passed away, and that just can’t be.  I want my family food recipes to live on through the generations, so I’ve decided to cook my way through my family cookbook.  Food and family are one in the same to me, and I think that will make my grandma Jo very proud.  IMG_6826

Also, some of these recipes need some serious work.  Me thinks a few of my relatives were sipping too much vermouth when they wrote “Put in Oven and Bake.”  Ok, Uncle Nick, I get it…but for how long, and at what temp?  Or my favorite recipe for our the Christmas Eel:  “Peel Skin, put on pan, broil.”

So in the process of letting my grandmother’s cooking legacy live on, and making delicious food, I’ll also be giving the cookbook a much needed edit.  I hope you’ll join me on my family food journey, and we’ll share some seriously good eats and some serious fun working out the Vella-vagueness of the recipes.  Ciao!


Three Tips to Give Good Host

My parents used to throw lots of parties.  I remember watching my mom float around the kitchen cooking and setting up,  delicious smells filling the air.  I’d peek through the banister as guests entered the house, smiling and laughing.  I’d trot downstairs in my pj’s and sneak a few snacks with my sisters.  My parents made it look so effortless and adulty, I couldn’t wait to grow up and throw parties like my mom and dad.  Flash forward 20 years, and it’s now something I take great pleasure in.  

I love having my friends gathered around the table, drinking wine, and having fun.  What I’ve learned though, is while my parents made it look easy, there’s quite a bit of work involved.  Hosting a party requires organization, lots of planning, and even more attention to detail.  Back when I used to plan events for a living, inevitably something would slip through the cracks and I would learn quickly never to make that mistake again next time.  The same goes for hosting in your home.  There’s a million ways to make sure your party goes right, and here’s just a few tips to ensure your friends have a blast, and there are no party fouls.

1) Make your guests feel comfortable by taking out the guess work

Make your guests feel comfortable…duh.  This seems obvious, right?  But this is more than welcoming your guests in with a smile, and offering them a drink right away.  This requires the attention to detail I’m talking about.  This means having a predetermined spot for your guests’ coats to collect.  This means having enough seats for every butt.  This means having glassware sitting out and drinks readily accessible.  You never want your guest to ask “Where should I put my coat” or “Can I get a glass of water.”  Have all of this stuff accessible for them ahead of time.  If you want your guests to use a coaster, make sure there are coasters out already.  If you want them to help themselves to food, have the buffet ready to go.  If you’re having a sit down dinner, have place cards set up so there’s no awkward moment of telling people where to sit.  Your guests come over to your house to relax and enjoy, so let them do just that and take out all of the possible guess work.

2) Stage everything out strategically

When I was an event planner I would walk around the event space and pretend to fill my plate up at the buffet and then walk to my table, or pretend to stand in line at the bar so I could map out where everything fits and what will work.  I recommend doing the same at home.  Of course, you know your own home like the back of your hand, and chances are you’ve carried a plate of food from the kitchen to in front of the couch, but I find it beneficial to map out where everything will go and how your guests will get around.  If you’re staging a buffet, it’s good to anticipate where the buffet will start and end.  You may think it makes sense initially going left to right, but find that one area will get really congested and block space to the bar.  Again, you want to make your guests feel at ease, and the smoother your service goes, the better.  

I always put my salad at the end of the buffet so that it doesn’t get crushed by the rest of the food.

3) Make it feel fancyIMG_6838

You don’t have to serve caviar from the Caspian Sea to show your friends a luxurious time, but if you’ve already taken the steps to work through every detail, why not go the extra mile and add a little flourish here and there.  For example, flowers brighten up party and add a little or a lot of drama depending on the arrangement.  But my favorite way to spruce up a party for your guests is in the bathroom.  When we have guests over, we keep our guest bathroom stocked with some comfort items that friends can put to good use.  We have hairspray, hand lotion, dental floss and the best and most important item of the bunch:  Poo-Pouri.  I’m sure you’ve seen the commercial, you spray Poo-Pouri over the toilet before you go numbero dos, and it completely masks the smell of your business.   It’s a miracle product, and when a guest goes into our bathroom it either makes them laugh, puts them at ease, or both.  There’s nothing more uncomfortable than having to go at a party, and being worried that someone else is going to get a whiff.  So maybe you don’t want your friends feeling SO comfortable at your house that they are ready to do that in your bathroom, but as my mother would say “When you’re window is open, there is no stopping it.”  So at least you’ve made your friends’ party poopy experience stress free.    


When it comes to party planning, the devil is in the details.  Keep in mind these three steps to give good host, and your friends will be able to focus solely on how good of a time they are having…no stinky bathrooms, awkward moments, or long buffet lines will stand in their way!  Cheers and Ciao!


Boozy Baking – Old Fashioned Scones

I am not a big whiskey gal.  Believe me, I would feel a lot cooler if I was.  In college I was super basic and drank vodka tonics all night long (Or double vods tons as my more obnoxious self would call them.)  Then when both my taste buds and my taste level grew up, I moved on to gin.  When I drink liquor, I drink gin.  I personally like a good old martini, but I have one and I’m done for the night.  When going out with friends, it’s best not to get sloshed after one cocktail.  I’m learning, and trying to turn on to the flavors of whiskey so I have something to sip on.

Here in Dayton we are lucky enough to have one of the top bourbon bars in the country, and when you visit The Century Bar it’s your Daytonian duty to drink one of the hundreds of different bourbons they offer.  This is how I got turned onto Old Fashioneds.   The Old Fashioned is the perfect cocktail for a whiskey newbie because it still has a touch of sweetness to override the whiskey burn.  Plus, you look almost as cool as Don Draper when you drink it…almost.

Now, picture me inching my spectacles up the bridge of my nose when I tell you that over the course of cocktail history, Old Fashioneds have evolved with different preparations and garnishes.  While today’s version is not technically the original cocktail preparation, the recipe I’m about to give you has become the norm and widely enjoyed:

Old Fashioned:

  • 2 oz. whiskey (I like rye whiskeys, but the choice is up to you!)
  • ¼ oz. simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes angostura bitters
  • Orange peel
  • 2 Luxardo Cherries


In rocks glass, muddle together orange slice, cherries, simple syrup and bitters.  Pour whiskey on top, add ice and enjoy like the ladies and gentleman that you are.  It’s that simple.

Now, because drinking in the morning is not acceptable in our society, but breakfast pastries are, I decided to see if I could combine the two.  So, without further adieu, this month’s boozy baking:  Old Fashioned Scones.


I start with orange and cherry scones, which are slightly sweet, bright and citrusy.  The glaze on the scones is where it gets boozy, plenty of whiskey, a few dashes of bitters and more orange juice.  The glaze offers up the nice whiskey bite, with some sweetness from the orange.  The bitters are optional (in the baking, not the drink), but I think it provides the glaze with a nice round flavor.  Recipe below!  Happy Baking and even Happier Boozing!

Old Fashioned Scones:

(Makes 12 scones)


  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • Zest from 1 orange (about 1 Tbsp, but feel free to add more for a brighter flavor)
  • 1 stick butter, cold, diced
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream (plus extra for brushing)
  • 1 cup dried cherries

For Glaze:

  • 4 Tbsp melted butter
  • 1 ½ cups confectioners sugar
  • Juice from 1 orange
  • ¼ cup whiskey
  • 8-10 dashes angostura bitters (optional)


  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  
  • In a bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and orange zest.
  • Add butter pieces and cut butter into the mixture until you have small coarse crumbs.  (I’ve found that a pair of kitchen scissors is the easiest way to go, otherwise two knives will work.)
  • Toss in dried cherries and stir to coat.
  • Whisk together the eggs and heavy cream.  Pour into dry mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Flour a dry surface, turn out dough and form into a round disk, about ¾” thick.  Cut into 12 equally sized wedges.  Brush with more heavy whipping cream.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden.
  • While scones are baking, over medium heat, melt butter.  
  • Add confectioners sugar, whiskey, bitters and orange juice.
  • Whisk until combined.  Let it come to a simmer, but not a boil.
  • With another large baking sheet, put cooling racks on top.  Cool scones slightly, then pour glaze on top.  Once glaze has stopped dripping off a bit, gather the glaze that has collected on the baking sheet, and continue process until scones are glazed to your liking.

Toasty Treats for a Weekend in the Woods

Every winter Tim and I head out of town for the weekend to a snowy (sometimes) cabin in the woods.  We sleep in, drink coffee in the hot tub, spend the day hiking, enjoy a proper cocktail hour and go to bed early.  We stare at each other instead of our phones, and we have one rule: no TV.  The reality is, the cabin we always stay in is tiny and sort of a shit hole, but it’s rustic, relaxing, and we love it.  

The only heat source is an old wood burning oven, which Tim guards over as it fulfills his base, prehistoric instinct to provide warmth.  The only cooking source is a toaster oven, and it feeds my prehistoric urge to eat perfectly toasted carbohydrates.  It also gives me the opportunity to menu plan, which aside from napping and drinking, is my favorite thing to do.   We hit the road, settled into our cabin in the wilderness and I prepared breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack with only a toaster oven, the way nature intended!  


We arrived at the cabin around 5:00 on Friday night, and knew we had a big hike ahead of us the next day, so we didn’t want to eat anything too heavy.  When we want to eat something substantial, but relatively light, I like to make Chicken Caesar Salads.  

Ahead of time, I made Chrissy Teigen’s Sriracha Caesar Dressing.  I try to stay away from celebrity cookbooks, but she is impossible to hate, her recipes are simple and whimsical, and she’s hilarious.  The cookbook is worth it just for her witty recipe introductions.  

So – the dressing was made, I had all the fixings in tow, now I just needed to make the chicken.  I’ll admit, I was a little nervous to make chicken in a toaster oven.  Chicken is a bird you don’t mess with, dead or alive.  I cranked up the toaster oven to 450 degrees, sprinkled the chicken with salt, pepper and minced garlic, lightly coated it in olive oil, set the timer for 20 minutes, and crossed my fingers.  The toaster’s timer went off (about a glass and a half of wine later) and I tiptoed over to the kitchen, half expecting to see to a raw chicken breast sneering at me, but alas it was cooked through!  It was garlicky, and juicy; the toaster oven god’s had shined down upon me!  

While the chicken was resting, I cut up the romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes and shaved the Parmesan cheese.  Then I turned down the oven a bit and threw in some nice, crusty sesame bread for croutons.  Before the croutons hit the toaster they were tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and some red pepper flakes because mama likes her salads spicy.  (Apparently I’m referring to myself as mama?)

The lighting in the cabin was not great…I swear, it tasted better than it looks!

Then, since I’m working on this thing where I try not to be fat, I’ve been eating vegetables…so boring, I know.  Anyway, I chopped up some zucchini, more olive oil, red pepper, salt, and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and threw those bad boys in the toaster oven next to the croutons.  Just about 10 minutes for each and voila!   A light meal, made almost entirely in the toaster oven, enjoyed next to a cozy fire, with a good bottle of wine.  We went to bed around 11:00 (which is very good for this night owl!)  I went to bed dreaming of coffee and breakfast in the morning…


Tim and I have this thing when we go on vacations, we have to have bagels and lox.  The first two nights of our honeymoon we stayed in a hotel with one of the nicest breakfasts I have ever seen.  It also came with a hefty price tag, but I obnoxiously told everyone that we were on our honeymoon in an effort to get free shit, and of course it worked.  We had a complimentary and very bouji breakfast.  Every morning, Tim and I sat in a corner booth, sipping espresso and going back for seconds (and thirds) of their smoked salmon buffet.  As we made our way to our next destination on our honeymoon we decided to keep the lox train rolling…and on and on it went.  For 8 blissful days we ate bagels and lox.  So now, whenever we travel, even just to a cabin a few hours away, we always enjoy savory everything bagels, onion cream cheese, and smoked wild caught salmon.  So, this weekend breakfast was a no brainer, and wasn’t that complicated: I toasted the bagels to a golden brown and added capers, onion, and tomatoes.  Oh, and coffee…of course.  Always coffee! 

Rustic (hence the tupperware), amirite?!


Tim and I got back from our 4 mile hike, which was gorgeous, strenuous and included one person’s (cough, mine) boot breaking with a mile left to go.  I got my hiking boots when I img_6752was a sophomore in high school, and apparently the glue holding the sole on has a 15 year expiration date.  I felt like I was Cheryl Strayed in Wild – except for all the devastation and personal turmoil…but I did come pretty close to throwing my boot into the gorge.  

Anyway, when we returned in the late afternoon we were teetering towards hanger (and by we, I mean me) so it was time to get cooking.  I bought a few kinds of spicy Italian deli meats, provolone cheese, and sandwich rolls.  I spread a nice zesty mustard on the bread, piled on the sandwich fixing and let the toaster oven take care of making them ooey gooey, and greasy in all the right ways.  We also housed a bag of Skinny Pop Popcorn, but hanger will do that to a girl.

This is about as close as I like to have my picture taken.  


The post-hike dip in the hot tub turned into a long, lazy nap in front of the fireplace.  I woke up at 5:00, more commonly referred to as cocktail hour.  I popped open a bottle of bubbly and set about getting some snacks on the table.  We had a smattering of olives to nibble on, but the piece de resistance was my toaster oven creation.  Prior to leaving town, I made my favorite garlicky hummus: chick peas, olive oil, cumin, tahini lemon, and garlic (of course) blended until smooth.  I decided to jazz up the hummus appetizer with some roasted cauliflower.  I cut up the florets into small pieces, tossed them in olive oil, garlic and the ever present red pepper flakes.  I put them in the oven for 20 minutes at 350. The veggies were then added on top of the hummus with a healthy dose of chopped parsley.  The vegetal additions added a nice, spicy, warm texture to the hummus and ensured that Timmy and I swapped some very garlicky smooches the rest of the night.

The meal possibilities in a toaster oven are endless.  If you can successfully bake chicken, I’d say you can do just about anything in there.  It’s a miracle machine, and while I only use it once a year at the cabin, I look forward to coming up with new creations every time.  What are your favorite toaster oven recipes?  
Here’s to relaxing weekends, fighting off hanger, and to lots of toasty treats!  Cheers and Ciao!


How to Shop Smart and Save Money!

If there is one thing I didn’t expect about food blogging, it was the expense.  Take for example my Gilmore Girls inspired day of eating.  Not only did that day take it’s toll on my digestive system, it also hurt my wallet.  Or my salmon nicoise adventure, and the $30 salmon filets.  Ouch, that one really stung.  As I am gearing up for lots of food and alcohol consumption, then even more food and alcohol writing, I decided it would be prudent to start exhibiting some skills  of a functioning adult, read: budgeting.  

Because many of the things I’m cooking or drinking require a trip to a speciality store, the costs can really add up.  With that in mind, I have put together some tips and tricks (which are mostly just common sense, but shhhh…) to smart grocery shopping.

1) Plan Your Meals

Meal planning has become a buzz phrase, and synonymous with healthy eating, but it also makes good sense.  We are all guilty of it:  you get to the grocery store, look around the produce aisle and then say “hmmmm…what should I eat for dinner this week.”  Then you end up piling produce, meats, and cheeses into your cart aimlessly.  By the time you get to the register you have maybe compiled a few meals, but chances are you’ll still end up with a ton of waste.  

I like to go to grocery shopping on Tuesday nights, which means on Monday night I’m typically scrolling through Pinterest, Cooking Light (my fave), and my other cookbooks for meal inspiration.   Then I catalog what I’m going to make for the week:  “Okay, Wednesday we’re having chicken and polenta, Thursday we’ll have sausage and peppers,  Friday and Saturday nights we’ll go out to eat, but Saturday breakfast, I’ll make a frittata.  Sunday I’ll make homemade pizzas, and Monday we’re going to have chicken caesar salads.”   The next step brings me to point number 2.

2) Make a List

I never thought I was a really organized person until I started meal planning.  I cannot lie…the way I write my grocery lists is a little neurotic.  If in 100 years, archeologists dig up my grocery lists the only thing they’ll have to say is “Wow, that bitch was anal.”

 I start with an ingredient list for each meal I plan to prepare.  So let’s take my weekly plan for meals above:


  • Chicken thighs
  • Chicken stock
  • Red onion
  • Corn meal


  • Hot Italian sausage
  • Assorted bell peppers
  • Yellow onion
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Crusty Bread

Saturday Breakfast:

  • Yellow onion
  • Sage
  • Eggs
  • Heavy Cream


  • Naan bread
  • Basil
  • Tomato Sauce
  • Cheese blend
  • Pepperoni


  • Romaine lettuce
  • Boneless chicken breasts
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Anchovy paste
  • Lemon
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Bread for croutons

Judging me yet…? Oh, just you wait.  Next, I take my list and break it down into sections like: Produce, Dairy, Meat, Inside aisles, etc. (See picture of a different, but similar grocery list below)  This is also the time where I add on my staple items, or the things I know we will go through and I purchase every week, like milk, coffee, yogurt, sandwich meat, etc.

Please pay not attention to my serial killer handwriting

I add these items onto the list because it keeps me consistent, I won’t forget anything, and I stick to what’s on my list and only that.  Which brings me to…

3) Stick to the List

Impulse purchases are another quick way to rack up a hefty bill.  If you’ve planned everything out, and you know what you’re going to eat for the week, then there really shouldn’t be any surprises when you are pulling out your wallet.  Here’s a few ways to ensure that you don’t stray too far from your intended purchases (a list within a list, I told you guys, I am a maverick):

  • Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry – I have a really funny story involving a weed brownie, a grocery trip, and spending the equivalent of a month’s rent…but it wouldn’t be appropriate here.  The point is…if you’re starving while you shop, everything is going to sound good to you.  You’ll get home and wonder who the hell put pop tarts, cheese puffs, 13 frozen meals and a box of extra butter popcorn in your cart.  Have a snack before you go, and save yourself $50, it’s that simple.
  • When I find myself sliding off the rails and reaching for the chocolate, I often stop and ask myself “Is it healthy?”  “Is it processed?”  “Can I cross utilize it between meals?”  Chances are, it’s not healthy, it is processed, and the cheesy garlic crackers cannot be served for breakfast lunch and dinner.  Done…step away from the crackers.  The wine aisle is the only exception to this rule…you can always always buy wine.

4) Shop Seasonally

It’s February, which means you should not be buying corn and tomatoes.  When you buy produce that is out of season, it’s probably being shipped from another country making it way more expensive and way less delicious.  Nothing tastes as good as a nectarine picked in June, or that first crisp pear in September.  Lucky for all of you basic bitches, avocados are always in season, so no need to fret about that.  (who am I kidding, avocado toast is delicious.)

Ok – so sticking to a plan and staying on budget isn’t brain surgery, but sometimes it helps to have a few basic ideas to keep you organized and on the money.  Happy shopping!


Chocolate and Wine Pairings in Time for Valentine’s Day!

Next week is Valentine’s day.  For some people this sounds thrilling, but for many people I know – even people in relationships – the thought of celebrating Valentine’s Day is akin to getting dental work done: painful and awkward.

My own husband is not what we would call a Romantic.  Now before I get myself in hot water, I will say that he is a lot of other things that are far more important:  he is supportive and smart, inquisitive, funny and he is like, really hot.  So I’d take all of those wonderful qualities over gifts, but Valentine’s Day isn’t exactly a day where he shines.  I can remember a only few times in our 5 years together that he has gotten me flowers, and one of those times I actually had to utter the words: Ok, you should probably get me flowers now.”  (Did I mention he’s a good listener?)  But because of this, sometimes I have to take the reins and make Valentine’s Day a thing.  And the kinds of things I want on Valentine’s Day are wine and chocolates.

Whether you are gearing up for a sexy night with your sweetie, or watching the Notebook with some gal pals – here are my perfect pairings with your chocolatey treats!

Milk Chocolate and Pinot Noir

I feel like not only do these wines work nicely as a pairing, milk chocolate and pinot noir are similar in the sense that they are both non-offensive flavors.  With white and dark chocolate, people either love them or hate them, but milk chocolate is a middle ground that nearly everyone can agree upon.  Same goes for pinot noir, it’s light and fruity, dry and balanced; there are no flavors that smack you over the head.  It’s just anangeline_pinotnoir_15_rt easy wine to enjoy.   

The Pinot Noir I’d recommend with your favorite milk chocolate is from Angeline Vineyards.  Their 2015 pinot noir has a touch of sweetness, but also a bit of acidity to cut through the creaminess of the chocolate.  The wine has hints of cranberry, orange, and cherry…imagine those flavors paired with your chocolate.  Sounds to me like a match made in heaven!

This wine can be found in the grocery or liquor store (It’s at Arrow Wine for my fellow Daytonians) and costs about $16.  

White Chocolate and Champagne

Oddly enough, white chocolate is my least favorite kind of chocolate, but champagne is my favorite of all the wines.  White chocolate is the sweetest, and the key to the right pairing is to find a wine to match the level of sugary goodness, and champagne is the perfect sweet, bubbly, tart compliment.  

jb_no69_bottleshot_175_671The champagne I highly recommend with white chocolate is the JCB N°69 Crémant de Bourgogne.  This is a sparking rosé, and it’s my favorite sparkling wine, hands down, always.  Seriously, this wine has my whole heart.  The wine is produced by famous winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset.  He assigns each of his wines with a number which holds some significance in his life.  1969 is the year in which he was born, and also a year of freedom, creativity and sexual expression, so this just may be the perfect wine for you to enjoy on Valentine’s Day…ya know what I mean?  (wink wink…hint hint…am I being subtle enough?)  The wine is bright and tart, with lots of red berry flavors.  Think chocolate covered strawberries…mmmm.  Try this wine and it’ll be like cupid struck an arrow right through your heart.  

You can find JCB around in stores, the price is typically around $30, and it is perfection in a flute.

Dark Chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon

Finally onto my favorite chocolate, dark, rich, and slightly bitter.  (I feel like I’m describing a person.)  Dark chocolate is the most complex in flavor with an earthy quality, and the type of chocolate I find the most satisfying.  Because of it’s decadent, deep, dark flavors, it is a chocolate that I think is best in smaller doses.  This cannot be said for the suggested wine, however, drink that shit up.  Red wine is good for you, right?!

Just like the dark chocolate itself, Cabernet Sauvignon is earthy, deep and complex.  The particular cab that I recommend is the 2013 Nadia Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine is nadia-cabernet-sauvignonextremely rich and tannic.  It highlights flavors of dark fruit, pepper and tobacco which compliment the cocoa flavor perfectly.  This big, bold, California cab marries with the intense, rich flavors of your dark chocolate bite.  

This can be found around town for about $20.  

Ok – here’s the part of the program where I get a little snooty and opinionated.  I am not a cab person.  They are so in your face and smack you over the head with tannins.  Many people like that type of thing, but it’s just not for me.  Instead of a big Cali cab, with dark chocolate, I opt for a Chianti Classico.  I much prefer Italian reds over Californian, (sorry, guys) and Chiantis are still round and robust, bold and rich in flavor – all the elements that stand up to dark chocolate, but they have a much smoother finish.  If you’re like me (elitist? high maintenance?  pain in the ass?) and can’t stand tannic wines, try a Chianti instead!

So there you have it, some perfect pairings for the sweetest day of the year.  Go ahead and cozy up to your lover, friends, or your cat.  Don’t mind the red wine teeth, just enjoy!  Cheers and ciao!


Boozy Baking – The Last Word

I’ve been doing a lot of baking lately.  When the weather gets cold, I turn my Kitchen Aid mixer on high.  Cold weather is also a good time to curl up at home and pour yourself a big old drink.  For my first installment of Ciao Vella’s “Boozy Baking” series I have had this idea in my head for a while of making a bundt cake based on one of my favorite classic cocktails:  The Last Word.  The Last Word is a old-fashioned cocktail that packs a big punch. img_6586

While I have been known to make a pretty mean cocktail in my day, nobody makes a better drink than my good friend Evan Danielson, who owns Dayton Cocktail Company.  Dayton Cocktail Company provides craft cocktail catering for special events, large or small.  He is awesome, talented, and hilarious – so it was a no brainer to invite him over to help me conceptualize my boozy baked rendition, and to throw back a drink in the process. 

The drink:

The last word consists of equal parts gin, lime juice, Green Chartreuse, and Luxardo.  You probably know what the first two ingredients are, the next two are a little less clear.  Green Chartreuse is a French liqueur made from distilled alcohol and over 100 herbs, botanicals, and flowers.   It’s 110 proof, which means it will knock your socks off – and makes for one incredibly boozy drink.  The flavor is complex: herbaceous, vegetal, slightly sweet, and definitely medicinal.  It’s not a flavor for everyone, but I happen to love it.  It’s a bright green color, obviously, given the name.  If you venture into your standard hipster bar, you may stumble upon a dude discussing pointillism and sipping a chartreuse on the rocks.  That’s fine for some…but I think it makes a much better component in a cocktail than just straight.  

Now onto Luxardo.  Luxardo is a maraschino liqueur that hails from Italy.  It’s made from Marsca cherries which taste tart and slightly bitter.  This tends to offset the sweetness in many drinks, adding a unique aroma and depth of flavor.


If you put all of those flavors together, you get a strong drink with complex flavors of sour cherries, herbs, and sweet lime.  It’s a drink to sip and savor, not something to pound like a shot of jager (gross).

The Cake:

I love to make bundt cakes.  First of all, bundt is fun to say (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding). But mostly I just really love cake.  What’s that expression: a party without cake is just a sad meeting?  It’s true, cake makes everything better.  But you can imagine my trepidation when I attempted take something so pure and wonderful and infuse it with boozy flavors.  Would it translate?  Would it taste terrible?  Would I ruin the integrity and the good name of cake?  These are life’s big questions!   The good news is everything turned out pretty well, but not perfect.  Tim said, with a mouth full of cake, that it was delicious and I’m overly critical of myself (duh, what else is new…) but I’ll let you guys test it out for yourself, if you are so inclined.  

So here’s what I did.  I made a “gin bundt” with lime and juniper to give you that refreshing, and herbaceous gin and tonic taste.  Then I made a green chartreuse and lime glaze to bring some sweetness and some tart flavors to the mix.  The cake could definitely use a tweak or two, but ultimately it hits all the notes of The Last Word, and you can safely drive after consumption!  


Recipes for both are below!  Next month we are going to experiment with breakfast scones and a whiskey drink that you should most definitely not drink at breakfast!  Cheers and Ciao!

The Last Word Cocktail:

  • ¾ oz Gin (Bombay Sapphire is my recommendation)
  • ¾ oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
  • ¾ oz Green Chartreuse
  • ¾ oz Lime Juice (fresh squeezed, none of the Roses crap, people!)
  • Lime wedge or twist for garnish

Combine all ingredients in cocktail tin, add ice, shake it, strain into coupe or martini glass.  Enjoy!

The Last Word Bundt Cake:

For the cake:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Zest and juice from 1 lime
  • 1 Tbsp. Juniper berries (you’ll have a better chance of finding dried berries than fresh)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup tonic water (I know, I thought it was weird too…)
  • 2 tsp. Baking powder
  • 2 ½ cups flour


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, grease bundt pan
  • Grate and juice lime, combine with juniper berries in mortar and pestle
  • In mixer, cream sugar and butter
  • Add vanilla, eggs, and juniper lime mixture.
  • Fold in tonic water
  • In medium bowl combine flour and baking powder, add to mixer.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes or until knife comes out cleanly.

For glaze:

  • ¼ cup unsalted butter
  • 2 ½  cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • ¼ cup Green Chartreuse
  • Grated zest of lime (½ for glaze, ½ for garnish)
  • Juice of 1 lime


  • Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt completely
  • Add in sugar, liqueur, lime zest and juice
  • Stir together until glazey consistency is reached, remove from heat and let cool to thicken
  • Pour glaze over cake, let glaze harden on cake before adding lime zest as garnish
  • Enjoy!

Sports Ball Snacks

My mom called me last week and asked “what are you going to write about next week?”  “Oh, I don’t know,” I responded, and threw out a few ideas,  each one more boring than the next.  The rest of the convo went a little bit like this:

Mom:  “But honey, the Super Bowl is coming up!”

Me:  “Oh…okay….so?”

Mom:  “So?!  So, you have to write about it.”

Me:  “Oh…okay…about what?

Yeah, so that’s about the extent of my interest in sports.  About a month ago I asked who was playing in the big game, and my whole family looked at me like I had three heads.  We all have our things, but “the sports” is not mine.  The Super Bowl, my mother reminded me, isn’t just about the sports.  Many people watch for the commercials; and some wait, with bated breath, for the halftime show.   Then, there are a few people that only go to Super Bowl parties for the snacks.  Now THAT is something that I can get behind.  

The trouble with Super Bowl snacks, for me, is that they always leave me feeling really heavy.  No matter if I have 2 or 20 beers while “watching” the game (and by that I mean, commenting about which players I think are hot, and saying “ouchies” about a million times) I still feel hungover the next day because of all the rich, heavy , (delicious, but) bad for you food.  This week, I’m laying out a few of my favorite recipes on the lighter side, so you can enjoy the game, and your Monday won’t suck…unless your team loses, of course.

Bean Dip

For those who like to dig in to a 7-Layer Bean Dip, this is a lighter alternative – no layers, but still delicious:

  • 12 oz cans of up to 3 kinds of beans.  I like black, pinto, garbanzo, or pinto beans
  • 12 oz can yellow corn, drained
  • 1 red onion diced
  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes, halved img_6551
  • 1 cup cilantro
  • 3 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • Juice and zest from ½ of a lemon
  • Salt to taste

Drain and wash bean and corn.  Combine all of the ingredients in serving bowl.   Serve with tortilla chips.  Keeps in the fridge up to 1 week.  You can stir and serve right away, but it’s even better if kept in the fridge overnight.

Meat on Bread

My brother-in-law says that no Super Bowl is complete without a foot long sub.  I’ve never been a big sub person myself, and all that bread can really fill you up.  Okay, by NO means am I one of those low-carbs girls…you’d understand if you saw me.  I love bread, but it has to be really good bread, and it’s got to know it’s place.  Instead of chowing down on a meatball sub, I prefer a nice ragu and a good crusty bread to soak it all up:

Sausage Ragu with Crusty Bread

  • 1 pound hot or mild Italian Sausage
  • 3 Tbsp. Olive Oil (divided)
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped 

    Make this dish for dinner – serve with creamy polenta or over pasta!
  • 1 ½ cups carrot, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups zucchini, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped (divided)
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • 15 oz. can tomato sauce (unsalted!)
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Large French Boule


  • Heat Olive oil in pan over medium high heat.  
  • Add sausage and stir until sausage browns and crumbles.  Remove from pan.  
  • Return pan to heat and add 3 tbsp. garlic, and veggies.  Cook until soft (around 5-7 minutes.)
  • Add sausage back to pan, then quickly add chicken stock and tomato sauce, stir.
  • Reduce heat and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut boule into thick slices, then in half again.  In small ramekin stir together chopped garlic and olive oil.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper, then bread.  Brush olive oil mixture on to bread.   Toast in oven for 5-7 minutes, or until golden brown.

If your party is buffet style – keep the sauce simmering on the stove or in a chafing dish.  Let your guests pour the ragu on top of the crusty bread, or on the side.

Lemon and Berries

I don’t even know what sort of dessert is typically served at a Super Bowl party, but I’m a gal who needs something sweet at the end of the meal.  One of my favorite sweet treats are lemon bars.  Lemon curd is my bae.  But even lemon bars, though bright and citrusy, can get a little heavy.  Instead I opt for lemon curd, mixed berries, and some crushed up graham crackers on top for a little texture.  It’s light, but it hits all the sweet spots.  

Recipe: img_6554

  • 4 to 6 lemons (depending on size) juice
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs plus 3 yolks
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest

Whisk together lemon juice, sugar, eggs and yolks, cornstarch, and sea salt in small saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk until thickened, about 3-5 minutes, curd mixture should come to a boil, but do not cook longer than 1 minute once it boils.  Remove from heat, strain – then whisk in butter, olive oil and lemon zest. Transfer to bowl to cool.

Once your curd has cooled a bit, add your fruit, sprinkle graham crackers on top, and if you’re so inclined, sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top.  

Happy Super Bowl watching…and eating!



Ciao Vel-last meal: The Niçoise Salad

It’s a common topic of conversation around my parent’s dinner table on Sunday nights:  If you were to be served your last meal, what would it be?  The answers vary, most members of my family will say pasta bolognese, or baked manicotti; our version of soul food.  While those sound delicious, and would definitely send me to my grave a happy gal, my absolute favorite dish is not necessarily heavy or comforting.  Instead it’s a light, bright summer dish,  but one that conjures up very happy memories, and an even happier belly.

Between my junior and senior year of college, I spent the summer living in Paris.  It was one of the most magical summers of my life, I turned 21 in front of the Eiffel Tower, had a jambon et fromage crêpe almost every day, and danced with a French boy every night.  

Little ole me in my Paris Apartment, thinking I was fancy!

I studied at the Paris American Academy, and just down the block from my school was a restaurant called “Académie de la bière” – or the Academy of Beer.  It was a dark bistro that served bowls of Mussels and fries as big as your head, and my favorite dish:  Tuna Niçoise.  

This is a traditional french salad that often includes haricot vert (fancy word for green beans), tuna, olives, egg, and potatoes.  Nowadays you’ll see various other ingredients make their way onto the plate, including red peppers, onion, radishes…you name it.  It’s a light, but hearty salad, and one that I spent many-an evening devouring during that beautiful summer in Paris.

I have been craving it lately, so I decided to make it for dinner one night, but with a very colorful twist!  Here is my Ciao Vel-last Meal, Niçoise Salad:

Instead of Tuna I chose wild-caught salmon.  I initially wanted to make the dish with Arctic Char, one of my favorite fish, but I got to the specialty grocery store way too late and the fish monger (a.k.a bratty high school student) was throwing eye-daggers at me.  I said “just give me something wild-caught” – $35 later, I had some King Salmon in my hand.  Expensive? Yes. Delicious?  Absolutely.


For my veggies I blanched green beans and carrots, roasted yellow squash and red bell peppers, and boiled purple potatoes.  Once all the veggies were properly cooked and cooled, I tossed them in a dijon vinaigrette.  You may remember I have about 30,000 jars of various kinds of mustard in my fridge, so I whipped up a quick dressing that added a nice depth of flavor to my vegetables.  I pan seared the salmon with lots of butter, skin side down, to get it nice and crispy.  Meanwhile I made a 6-minute egg (which will be featured next week!)

Dijon dressing:  add mustard, fresh herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil, and red wine vinegar

This meal tested my organization and time management skills, for sure.  It requires tons of prep, and timing to ensure that the veggies, the egg, and the fish don’t get overcooked.  As we know, not every meal I make is a total success, and this one was no exception:  the salmon was a little undercooked, the potatoes were a little overcooked, my egg, however, was absolutely perfect.  You win some, you lose some.

If you are looking for light, but filling mid week meal, give this one a whirl.  You’ll transport yourself to gay ole Paris and perhaps it’ll become your new last meal too!


Brunching Do’s and Don’ts

There a few activities that are at the top of my life list:  I like getting pedicures, I like shoe shopping, and I like to brunch.  (Should my hobbies be more interesting?  Ahhh, well.)  Brunching is one of the things I look forward to the most during the weekends.  It’s the perfect opportunity to slow down for a moment, gab with friends, and enjoy some major grub.  Breakfast food is my absolute favorite, and we all know by now that I like to drink, so any occasion to enjoy eggs and wine in the morning is okay by me.

Just like any sophisticated endeavor, there are certain rules that come with brunching.  These aren’t hard and fast rules, but as a person who has enjoyed and also worked many a brunch, I’d like to believe I have a bit of insight.  Here is the Ciao Vella list of brunching do’s and don’ts.

  • Don’t – Get Swindled by Your Mimosa

A mimosa seems like a brunch staple, and it is – but in my opinion, a mimosa is a total rip off.  To me, a good mimosa consists of 80% champagne and 20% fruit juice, but at most places you go for brunch, those ratios are flipped.  You wouldn’t normally spend $8 on a glass of OJ, right?  My suggestion:  order a glass (or bottle, because let’s be serious) of your favorite sparkling, and ask for a glass of OJ or grapefruit on the side.  In the end, you may pay a little bit more, but at least you get the drink you want, and not the drink you think you want.

  • Do – Order All the Drinks

This “do” is two-fold.  Yes, take this opportunity to get a little loose, overindulge, have more than a few drinks.  But what I really mean by this is – have as many drink options as you’d like.   When I brunch, I order a glass of champs, a side of OJ, a coffee, and a club soda with lime.  There is never any shortage of beverage options on my table because brunch is about decadence and indulgence, but also, each drink serves it’s purpose:  coffee because it’s technically still breakfast time, champagne, because brunch, oj because see above, and finally club soda because if you’re drinking, you have to stay hydrated.  (Look mom, I’m responsible once in awhile!)


  • Don’t – Settle for Just One Plate

This past summer Timmy and I took a weekend trip to Nashville to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  One of my (what I would like to think is) cute travel quirks is that I research restaurants ahead of time and almost always pick out exactly what I’m going to eat.  As Tim says “You’re always planning your next meal.”  We made reservations at this gorgeous restaurant called “Le Sel” for brunch, but there were so many good menu options that I just couldn’t choose.  

Le Sel in Nashville – seriously most gorge restaurant ever.

When we sat down at the table, Tim agreed to order a little bit of everything, and it was amazing.  We had a crepe, a peach salad, mussels and fries, crab cakes, and eggs Benedict…yep, all the food.  This is a food philosophy I encourage for all brunches.  Want a salad?  Get it.  Eggs?  Do it, girl.  Sausage on the side.  Yes!  And you want a pancake?  Get one for the table.  Split a plate with a friend, take some of it home, I don’t care what you do – but just get it all.  

  • Do – Treat the Staff Well

This should go without saying – your wait staff and the kind people preparing your food work incredibly hard for sometimes thankless pay and long, grueling hours.  I hope you always tip well, but do so especially at brunch.  First of all, serving brunch sucks.  The lovely people serving your eggs probably worked late the night before, then had to roll out of bed with sore backs and feet to bust their ass way too early in the morning for your enjoyment.  Brunch is also a stressful shift for many of your restaurant biz friends, with long ticket times, snotty customers, and temperamental ingredients.  An extra two or three bucks towards a tip isn’t going to make that much of a difference in your life, but it will make one stressful shift all the better for the folks serving you.  Also, you might be qualified for sainthood if you buy a round for the kitchen staff – they need love too.

  • Don’t – Feel obligated to shower beforehand

It’s the weekend, okay?  Spray some dry shampoo, drag a comb through that mop, and throw on a hat if you have to.  It just feel so unnecessary to primp pre brunch, and while I am typically a proponent of the primp, brunch is supposed to be a relaxed vibe.  One of the highlights of my Sundays is rolling out of bed, and breaking bread with my buddies.  You have to put on office-appropriate clothes every other day, so let brunch be your opportunity to keep it casual.  Plus, sneakers, leggings and last night’s mascara can still look tres chic!

  • Do – Clear Your Schedule

The plan is, to have no plan.  You’ve got lots of chatting to do with your friends, lots of drinks to consume, lots of plates to clear – so make sure your schedule is also clear.  Having to run off to a family function post brunch can be a total buzz kill.  Brunch is a little glamorous, a little bouji, and you should leave stuffed.  One of the best parts about brunch is the epic food coma you slip into when you finally get home.

My favorite homemade brunch inspired dish: Spicy Siracha Caesar Salad on French Boule with a fried Egg.  Want to make it at home? Spread some of the dressing on the toast, toss the dressing with your lettuce and any other salad fixings, and put a perfectly cooked egg on top.  Viola!