The Bloody Mary was built for Sundays. Maybe it’s because of the tomato juice or the salad-like garnish, but a Bloody Mary always makes me feel like I’ve done something relatively good for myself. And isn’t that what Sunday is all about: restoring our selves and restoring our souls?

When I’m looking to do a little restoration, I head over to The Famous Bar* and order up the La Cajun. This version of the Bloody Mary is my favorite, although they offer several variations. It’s spicy without being over the top, and the beer back (which is an ice-cold shot of Bud Light) is a brilliant addition.

You can drink the beer along with your Bloody Mary, or pour it in for a Bloody Beer effect. Depending on the day, I’m apt to do either!

The La Cajun is at the top of my hit parade because of its depth of flavor. William Kunderman, one of the awesome bartenders at The Famous Bar, was kind enough to share with me – although not in proportion detail – the secrets of this spicy, shake-the-cobwebs-out Bloody Mary. Of course there is the usual tomato juice (Campbell’s is The Famous Bar’s preferred brand) and vodka. The drink takes a spicy, and perhaps even a little bit of a meaty turn when he shakes in some A-1 Sauce, adds a dash of Worcestershire sauce, freshly cracks black pepper, tap-tap-taps in the Tobasco sauce, and adds a zesty zing with sprinkles of celery salt and Cajun seasoning.

The Cajun seasoning and Tobasco are then deftly mixed to rim the pint glass that holds the boozy La Cajun salvation.

When it comes to the garnish, The Famous Bar knows what it’s doing. Although pictured here with a Freestone Pickle (holy moly was that a good pickle) the La Cajun is traditionally dressed with Dano’s Pickled Green Beans. When I visited, William was waiting for a batch of the beans to arrive from Louisiana. Truly, I could eat those green beans by the handful!

But I digress …

If you’re feeling the need to restore, refresh, or even reboot for the week ahead, make plans to head to the Southtown neighborhood for the La Cajun. Enjoy a Sunday Happy Hour (they open at 3:00), then head to one of the great neighborhood restaurants (like Pueblo Solis) and Eat It, St. Louis!

The Famous Bar
5213 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO 63109
314.832.2211
http://www.thefamousbar.com

The Famous Bar on Urbanspoon

* The Famous Bar is a special place for me. It’s where Mark and I had our wedding reception (things are different when you get married the second time). It’s where I did a red-wine spit take on a good friend, and I’m still apologizing for that. It’s been the site of so many good times with so many friends. Everyone should have a place like this in their neighborhood.

I love to help kids get their food-loving legs under them. Whenever a niece or nephew or – well, OK … ANYONE – asks me to make something, I’m more than happy to oblige. If I can help a kid keep an open mind about food and flavor and texture, I feel like my mission is accomplished.

Often a request will come my way that simply changes the way familiar flavors are presented, or even challenges (a little bit) what is usual.

This is my story of my nephew, Nick, and Birthday Pie.

Several years ago, I came across a Martha Stewart recipe for apple pie with white cheddar cheese crust. I’d never made a pie before, but knowing that apple pie is my husband’s favorite I decided to give it a whirl. It was my first pie, and it was beautiful and perfect and totally Martha-worthy.

Me being cheesy -- cheddar cheesy -- with my apple pie.

Since then, I’ve taken this pie to many Thanksgiving dinners, and it’s been received with rave reviews*.

So … this past Thanksgiving when I walked in with a warm pie, my 8-year-old nephew, Nick, came running up to me. His big blue eyes were lit with excitement.

Nick: “Amy, you brought pie!”

Me: “Yup, sure did.”

Nick: “What kind is it?!?!”

Me: “Apple, and it’s good!”

Nick (the light fading from his eyes): “Awe, man. It’s always apple.”

Me: “Well, what kind would you like?”

Nick: “Hummm, well, um … BLUEBERRY.”

Me: “Alrighty then, it’s blueberry you’ll get. How about if I make it for your birthday?”

We were agreed, and I promised the birthday pie.

When I told Nick’s mom, Karen, about our discussion, she laughed. “That kid has never had a blueberry pie. It’s funny that he is so certain about wanting one.”

Really, that’s all the motivation I needed. I couldn’t wait to make a pie for Nick.

As Nick’s party approached, I took to the internet … oh, the internet … to find a blueberry pie recipe. We are all familiar with my love of recipes.  As luck would have it, the internet and The Food Network had just what I wanted and exactly what Nick had requested.

An all-butter crust, fresh blueberries, and a not-so-dead-sweet syrup to hold it all together. What’s more, this pie is drop dead gorgeous! I think that’s what I love most about pies … they are simply beautiful.

The big day arrived, and his special treat was ready! When I showed Nick his blueberry pie, still warm from the oven, the light was in his baby blues all over again. He was excited for singing, presents, and pie.

A lovely blueberry birthday pie fit for a 9 year old!

This is how Nick turned 9, enjoying his very own blueberry pie.

Happy Birthday, Nick!

I love, LOve, LOVE introducing curious and willing kids to new flavors and different presentations. All they have to do is hint at wanting something, and I’m in the kitchen. It’s important that kids to grow into adults who’ll want to Eat It, St. Louis!

And we did Eat It, St. Louis! And it was good!

* Except for the year that my local market mis-labeled the apples and the pie filling liquefied. Since learning that horrible, hard lesson, I use only Granny Smith apples. They simply hold up best!

I am the kid of a career United States Air Force family. To put it mildly, I thrive on structure. Rules make my world go ‘round. I’m a by-the-book kind of gal.*

You can imagine that when I’m in the kitchen I want a recipe. I live it. I love it. I follow it to the letter. I eschew comments and changes that are suggested by reviewers on popular food sites. I find comfort in the structure.

Not too long ago, my fabulous food-loving friend, Jane Arnold, and I were embroiled in one of  those wonderful post-dinner-and-wine conversations. These are the kinds of conversations where anything seems possible. When she learned that I was now in possession of an accidentally** acquired torte pan, Jane lit up with the idea of a riff on a black forest cake for her birthday.

And post dinner and wine, I was SURE I could do it.

Now, imagine the anxiety that set in the next day in when I found myself with nothing more than a deadline, a torte pan, the notion of  a black forest cake, and no real recipe.

As a cold sweat broke across my brow, I took to the internet.

Black forest cake traditionally is a layer cake. That, my dear readers, is exactly what I found in recipe after recipe after recipe.  I, however, didn’t want to make a layer cake. I wanted to use my newly acquired torte pan.

So, I began to read the recipes for themes so that I could create my version of  this Bavarian classic.

The first thing I learned was that Kirschwasser (clear cherry brandy) is a traditional ingredient. Cake makers use it to create depth in the cherries and to add a little zipity-do-da to the whipped cream.

Kirschwasser is a clear cherry brandy. I bought my bottle at Randall's on Jefferson in STL.

Kirschwasser is a clear cherry brandy. I bought my bottle at Randall's on Jefferson in STL.

The other “themes” are all pretty obvious: chocolate cake; cherries; whipped cream. The methods by which someone like me might incorporate these themes, however, are all over the board. Some recipes call for box cake mixes; others called for canned cherries in heavy syrup; and yet others suggested processed whipped-cream-style products.

To be honest, that wasn’t what I was looking for.

So I started piecing it all together the way I thought it should be. Because, really, my way is usually best.***

This time was no exception.

I started with a chocolate cake recipe that I found on Epicurious. It’s lovely and rich. The best part is that it is a perfectly sized recipe. The original instruction is for this cake to be split between two five-inch pans. It, therefore, was perfect for one nine-and-a-half-inch torte pan.

Next, I googled “kirsch whipped cream” and what came up was perfection: cherry chocolate shortcakes with kirsch whipped cream! I had no intention of making shortcakes … this time .. but it gave me that deconstructed direction I was craving.

I made beautiful boozy cheeries.

photo (16)

I used frozen cherries with no sugar added (it being February and all). Otherwise, I would have started with fresh bing cherries.

I confidently whipped up gorgeously flavored and not-to-sweet cream.

photo (14)

If you've never whipped cream before, and some of you may not have, this is what it should look like. I promise, it will hold and not "melt."

I filled my perfectly rich and chocolate-y cake with the whipped cream and cherries.

photo (13)

So delicious.

And Jane had a gorgeous cake!

photo (17)

Happy birthday, Jane Arnold! (And thank you, Maria Morrison, for taking a great picture!)

To be honest, it was a leap for me. A giant, anxiety ridden, near paralyzing leap. The delicious result was more than worth the risk. It was rewarding. It was validating. It was motivating.

I’m inspired to do it again. Who knows what my my torte pan will render next. Whatever comes from it, though, I hope you’ll help me Eat It, St. Louis!

*Except for when it comes to speed limits. Those are more strong suggestions.

** So, I went to this Pampered Chef party and got caught up in the excitement. I thought I was ordering a TART pan. Yes, I could have returned it, but I started to think about what I’d do with a TORTE pan … and I couldn’t bring my self to send it back. It was a happy accident!

*** I should trust my kitchen skills more.

Macaroni and cheese. I was so excited, those many years ago, when my then-newish-boyfriend told me that that his 6-year-old, a somewhat persnickety eater, loved macaroni and cheese.

My chance to impress the impish redheaded Allen had arrived!

In an instant, I grabbed my fabulous recipe – hand written in blue ink on a sheet of paper from a legal pad – jumped in the car to procure groceries and headed over to Mark’s house to make a comfort food favorite in an unfamiliar kitchen.

This dinner was going to bring us together. This dinner was going to make the unfamiliar both warm and comfortable. This dinner was going to be the first of the many I fantasized about making for the two people who were going to make my life complete.

Perhaps I put too much on the mac & cheese.

I got to Mark’s early and set about chopping; and melting; and adding; and stirring, stirring, stirring; and boiling; and straining; and mixing. After an hour or so, the pan of cheesy deliciousness was ready to bake.

Mark and Allen got home right as I was pulling out the bubbly pan of mac & cheese. I felt like some sort of super combination of June-Cleaver-meets-Martha-Stewart. My vision was happening.

As they walked through the kitchen doorway, I exclaimed, “Hey, kiddo, I made your favorite: macaroni & cheese!”

And this kid, who held my world in his hands, looked around and took in every detail. He then flatly informed me, “That’s not macaroni & cheese. There’s no box.*”

Based on the missing box, he refused to eat.

I, in overly dramatic fashion, shut my self in the bathroom and cried.

Mark, trying to manage the situation, continued to try to get Allen to eat, which led to a battle of wills … which the 6-year-old won.

Clearly, it was not the night I’d imagined. It also wasn’t as heart wrenching as seemed in the oven-heat of the moment. It was our first “family” tiff**, and we survived it. Mark and I did enjoy our dinner eventually and Allen enjoyed a PB&J.

Ten years later, The Boy continues to politely decline my fab mac & cheese. So I now make it as a special treat for grown-up friends and family. Here is the recipe that delights most but fails to measure up to the Blue Box*** in a kid’s best estimation.

Fabulous Mac & Cheese****

12 Tablespoons of unsalted butter

1 Medium white onion, rough chopped (these will be strained out at the end)

3 –4 Sprigs of fresh Thyme (no need to remove the stems. This will be strained out at the end.)

10 – 12 whole peppercorns

6 Tablespoons of flour

5 Cups of whole milk (room temp)

6 Cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 Lb of elbow macaroni, prepared al dente (don’t’ forget to salt your water)

Salt

Pepper

Nutmeg (fresh grated is best)

Step one: Melt the 12 T of butter over medium heat.

12 Tablespoons of meting butter! Everything's better with butter.

Step two: Add the onions, thyme, and peppercorns and simmer for 3 – 4 minutes. Stir constantly.

Adding layers of flavor with onion, thyme, and peppercorns.

Step three: Add the flour and cook for 2 or so minutes, stirring constantly. This is the roux and it will be very thick.

Just add flour for a perfect Roux.

Step four: Add the milk slowly, stirring while you add. When you bring the milk to room temp, you will save a bit of time. At this point, the sauce will look like this.

A little -- or a lot -- of milk gives us the start of a bechamel sauce.

Keep stirring and stirring, which will keep the milk from burning as you work to bring this to just boil.

Start your salted water boiling for the macaroni. When it boils, you’ll want to cook it for 9 – 11 minutes. Taste it at the 9 minute mark. It should be a bit firm, or al dente. Drain and set aside for add at the end.

When the bechamel reaches the boil (over a medium heat), turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to stir constantly for another 10 minutes.

When your bechamel sauce looks like this, it's time to strain out the chunky bits!

When the sauce looks like the photo above, strain it to remove the onion, thyme, and peppercorns.

At this point, add all six cups of your shredded sharp cheddar to the bechamel and mix until it’s creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Grate a bit of nutmeg, too, and continue to mix.

Add your cooked macaroni and pour into a baking dish.

photo (4)

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and divine.

Remember, if your 6-year-old doesn’t like it, there’s more for you. I promise, if you’re 7 or older, you’ll love to Eat It, St. Louis!

* Ah, the box. This was an important lesson for me. Sometimes, when it comes to a kid, less is more. They are learning lots of new things every day. At the end of the day, they need something familiar and easy; gourmet mac & cheese really doesn’t fit that need.

**The best news is that our struggles as a blended family are few and far between; and if this is the worst of it then I’ve got a lot for which to be thankful.

***In all truthfulness the Blue Box rocks. I don’t know what it is about the powdered cheese and the glowing orange sauce it renders, but it’s good.

****Be sure to allot yourself plenty of time. You will be standing over the stove for about an hour. Also, if you make it early and let it sit for a bit, the flavors will really come together. This stuff is really delicious.

There are two things I can’t do without. Every year, my guilty pleasures’ debut set me all a tingle. I thoroughly bask the brief, yet golden glow they bring. The sun shines brighter. My coffee tastes richer. And the shoe sales are – um – shoe-ier.

Every year I just can’t wait for McRib season and The Rachel Zoe Project.

Yes, you heard me right. The McRib, all tangy and saucy and messy and mystery, makes me giddy. The first hint of McRib season, which started right on schedule last week, makes me clap and bounce like a little kid while I gleefully wait in the drive-thru lane. Truly, it’s my happy meal.

Yes

Yup. I break out the Wedgewood for The McRib.

If it makes me THAT happy, though, then why should I feel SSSSOOOO guilty? Because I’m (allegedly) a grown-up, and I know better than to eat fast food. Because the McRib is much maligned by the mainstream, and I simply love it for what it is … or isn’t … or might be. Because I secretly care about what people think about me, and I really just want to be one of the cool kids (but it’s troublesome with a big McRib sauce spot on my shirt).

Which brings me to The Rachel Zoe Project, which I love with the same zeal as I love the McRib. And, much like the McRib, Rachel’s time with me is short. I feel her pain when she struggles to delegate. I get simultaneously anxious and teary-eyed with her when she watches her beautiful styling work walk the red carpet at the Oscars. I get angry along with her when those she’s mentored leave and try to siphon her business. Oh, this show allows me to be part of a glamorous, fabulous made-for-TV reality.

Again, however, why so much guilt over Ms. Zoe and her show on Bravo? Because I’m trying to reform some of my own controlling, A-type, if-you’d-just-let-me-run-the-whole-show-it-would-be-better ways; and I really just want to be more like Rachel.  Because it shouldn’t seem reasonable for every successful woman to have multiple Hermès Birkin bags; and now I’m stalking them on Portero Luxury and wondering how much my 44-year-old eggs will fetch on the open market. Because – despite my food loving ways – I’d give anything to shimmy into sample sizes.*

But let’s face it: Rachel is one of the cool kids, and I have that pesky McRib sauce spot on my shirt. Damn.

So these are my guilty pleasures. For eight weeks, The Rachel Zoe Project feeds my seemingly insatiable appetite for fashion and glamor and A-type success. And for approximately eight weeks, McDonalds will offer to feed my appetite while I struggle not to hit up every drive-thru for a McRib.

Beware: The two (or three) times I can’t resist, kindly avert your eyes and move out of my way because I’m going to Eat It, St. Louis!

*Of course, with a McRib in one hand and a Birkin in the other!

We’ve all heard the following verse: Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for life.  We are living in times wherein those who can are supporting both sides of the verse to assure that people are strong in the short term and to teach them to flourish in the long term.

The world is a challenging place, and – thankfully – there are many terrific organizations that work to help more than 925 million people (according to the WFP) meet their critical day-to-day needs. Where would we be – as a global community – without the local work of Operation Food Search and Food Outreach, and the global work of groups like UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP)?

Long-term success in the war against poverty and hunger likely happens a little bit differently. That’s why I’ve asked my friend and mentor, Chuck Hirsch**, to be a guest contributor. Chuck is a member of the development board of a St. Louis-based organization that works to empower those who can change the future’s course. His insight and passion for this effort perhaps will inspire each of us to get involved with movements that touch our hearts and appeal to our sensibilities.

So please, check out Chuck’s blog entry – Fasting for Africa – and imagine how many more will eat when more people have the opportunity to fish. That’s what it’s all about at Eat It, St. Louis!

Fasting for Africa

It’s been a few years since I last traveled to South Africa, but I still clearly remember the combination of anxiety and eagerness I felt during the weeks leading up to my visits.  Each and every time, I was anxious about the differences – the exotic food; the diseases that are too common there and unheard of here; the sadness of the shanty towns that line the highway between the Cape Town airport contrasting with the modern downtown hotels; and the mysteries and dangers of the “bush,” where we would get within a few short yards of lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, rhinos, elephants, hyenas, jackals, and more.  And I was eager to see once again some very wonderful people – both old friends with whom I worked and new friends who always seemed eager to welcome and embrace visitors to their beautiful country.

I think about those wonderful people a lot when my wife Becky and I fast for Africa.

Becky and I are both members of the development board for MicroFinancing Partners in Africa (MPA).  This is an international organization headquartered in St. Louis, founded and directed by Sister Toni Temporiti.  Sister Toni’s clear and well-focused vision for her organization is “the eradication of extreme poverty in African communities through microfinancing.”

In the slum of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya, MPA founder and president Sister Toni Temporiti and executive director Heather Cammarata meet with Lucy, one of the original 50 street beggars who helped found one of MPA's partner organizations, Jamii Bora. With a small loan from Jamii Bora, Lucy started a business selling porridge and worked her own way up to providing her family with a modest home, regular meals, and an education.(Photo courtesy of Heather Cammarata)

Microfinancing is an economic concept that is essentially built upon providing very small loans to people who run very small business operations.  MPA generates funds that are then provided to a number of different microfinancing projects – including a soy milk project in Tanzania, small business groups in poverty-ravaged areas of Kenya, and family dairy operations in Uganda.  (You can learn lots more about these projects at MPA’s Web site.)

The common theme that ties all of MPA’s partners together is expressed well through the MPA value statement:  “People have the right, the will and the capacity to direct their own future.”

I suppose it’s the “business person” in me that finds MPA’s approach to helping people so appealing.  This is an organization made up of people who truly want to help others, while fully understanding that the best way to help people is to give them a real opportunity to help themselves.  These monies that MPA provides are loans,  and with all the organizations with which MPA affiliates itself, the requirements for those who want to participate in the programs are well thought out and demanding.  Those who receive microfinancing support must have a business plan; they must work with others in developing and executing the plan; they must develop the discipline to stick with the plan; and they must ultimately be responsible to themselves, their families, and their business partners in repaying their loans.  With that approach, I believe, the dignity of the person is honored, true life lessons can be learned, and true change can take place.

Polina, a member of the Bukoba Women's Empowerment Association in Bukoba, Tanzania, demonstrates how tasty the soy milk is that is made as a part of the group's income-generating activity, harvesting soy beans and converting them to soy flour and milk. (Photo courtesy of Heather Cammarata)

MPA and its partners are made up of a lot of people who share that belief in the value of microfinancing as a great way to honor people while attacking the problem of poverty, and I think a lot about all of the members of the MPA team when my wife Becky and I fast for Africa.

The fast itself is one of the tools we use to raise money for MPA.  This year, we’ll be fasting 36 hours.  The fast starts at 9 p.m. on Thursday, October 20, 2011, and ends at 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 22, 2011.  Those of us who fast ask family and friends to support us with a donation to MPA, and if you’re so inclined to help out, you can do that through the MPA Web site as well.

Obviously, fasting for 36 hours is not a huge deal, especially when one considers our standard of living in contrast with the poverty and hunger that so many of our African brothers and sisters deal with every single day of their lives.  Becky and I have found, though, that even though it is not a huge deal, it is indeed a big enough deal – and a discomfort of large enough proportions – to help us put our own lives and the way we spend our time in a little bit clearer perspective.  It helps us see the world and feel the world from the point of view of those people we are hoping to help, and it helps reminds us of how blessed we are.  We both believe that with great blessing comes great responsibility, and feeling a few hours of the hunger that so much of the world lives with every single second of their lives is a good reminder of how important it is to help how and where we can.

Noline, a farmer in the Cow Project in Masaka, Uganda, who has just installed the biofuel system at her farm, shows how much her cow enjoys the caliendra grass. With the biofuel to operate a hotplate and a light inside the home, Noline says that she appreciates being able to feed her children something warm before sending them to school. (Photo courtesy of Heather Cammerata.)

Of course, there is plenty of poverty here in the United States and there are plenty of good causes that need good people to support them.  And believe me, I commend all who are doing charitable work.  It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I find MPA’s work in Africa appealing enough for me to work and fast to support its efforts.  No doubt it’s because I’ve been there and seen first-hand the kind of poverty MPA is working to eliminate.  No doubt it’s also because I love the part of Africa I visited and was charmed by the life-loving people I met.  And no doubt it’s my practical side that says the right approach to helping people is to help them help themselves.

But there’s one thing more.

Becky and I have four young-adult children who are inheriting a world that is much smaller in so many ways than the world we were in as we began our married lives.  Call it “post 9/11” or whatever you would like, but these days there is little doubt that whatever happens across the globe affects our personal lives here in the Midwest more quickly and more dramatically than ever before.  In short, our neighborhood has expanded, and so our responsibility to be good neighbors to all those around us has just been scaled up.

I have to laugh at myself as I share all these feelings about MPA and the reasons I fast.  I laugh because it’s pretty typically “American” — long-winded and full of introspection.

To illustrate how an African might sum up the same feelings in a more succinct African manner, I want to share one final note.  After one of our trips to South Africa, Becky and I were at the Johannesburg airport and found a card that captured in a few short lines a great deal of the emotion we’d felt on this beautiful trip.  We bought the card, brought it home, and framed it.  It now has a prominent place on the wall of our breakfast room, and the sentiment sums up well why we believe so strongly in MPA and the fast for Africa that supports it:

“Animals with spots and stripes and horns and big teeth . . . all together in the sun and in the rain . . .”

*Man, in this context, is all humanity. As you’ve read, women are pretty good at catching fish. 

**Chuck Hirsch is an experienced publishing professional, with a long career in business-to-business media.  He is the president of Hirsch Communications Consulting, LLC, which provides consulting services to the life, health, and financial services business. Chuck’s firm specializes in helping companies and wholesale organizations in these businesses better attract and communicate with the independent producers they want and need as their representatives.  In addition, he is Contributing Editor and writes a monthly article for one of the nation’s leading business-to-business magazines for financial services professionals.

I’m almost 98%* certain the answer is, “Yes, my friends would love me if I didn’t make the Artichoke Chicken Salad.” I’m just as certain, however, that being the purveyor of this side dish didn’t hurt when guest lists were being developed in the early days of my St. Louis social life.

Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have to rely wholly on my classic good looks and sparkling personality to get me through the door.

Artichoke Chicken Salad was my ticket in. It helped break the ice: “So, which dish is yours?” It gave acquaintances a reason to follow up with me: “Would you mind sharing that recipe? It helped people get to know me: “What’s in that dish?” It also became the foundation that helped establish me as a go-to contributor for all kinds of party nosh: “I just made partner! Can you help me put together a celebration menu?”

Now, 12 years later, I’m fully ensconced in a wonderful group of true friends. Together we’ve celebrated life’s greatest joys and weathered its cruelest blows. We’ve planned and plotted; laughed and cried; risen and fallen; we’ve recovered and thrived. Rarely have I walked through any door without my ticket, and it never fails to deliver yummy satisfaction regardless of the occasion.

I’m thrilled to share this often-requested recipe with you.

Artichoke Chicken Salad **

1 Roasted chicken from your grocery store

1 Red bell pepper, diced

1 Yellow pepper, diced

1 Red onion, small to medium (depending on your taste), finely diced

2 Jars of Progresso marinated (in OIL) artichoke hearts, drained, chopped, and liquid reserved

2 Boxes of Near East long grain and wild rice, cooked per the package

1 Cup of Hellman’s mayonnaise

Artichoke Chicken Salad ingredients

Step one: Cook the long grain and wild rice per the package and set aside to cool.

Step two: Take the skin off of the chicken and the meat off the bones. (Use is all!) By hand, shred the meat.

Shredded chicken. Not much to look at, but yummy.

Step three: In a large bowl, combine the chicken with the red pepper, yellow pepper, red onion, and chopped artichoke hearts.

All the chopped veg. Pretty!

Step four: In a medium bowl, whisk the reserved artichoke marinade with the mayonnaise until it becomes a smooth dressing. Set aside for a moment.

Step five: Add the cooled rice to the chicken and vegetables, and mix well.

Step six: Pour all of the dressing over the top, mix well, and refrigerate.

And presto, we have a salad!***

I hope this recipe works magic for you like it has for me. If this this kind of dish isn’t your cup of tea, take some time to develop your own signature offering for pot-luck parties. Between football season and holiday events, the invitations will begin arriving soon. Whether it’s a dip, dessert, side, or a cocktail, please know that I plan to Eat It, St. Louis!

* Why not 100%? Well, that would be a blatant act of hubris that would call for a God smack. A little humility never hurt anyone.

** Notes: This is a recipe for which the brand of ingredients makes a difference (in my opinion). The Near East doesn’t taste as salty as others; the Progresso oil-based marinade has perfect balance. Don’t panic if you can’t find the exact brands, however. This salad is delicious no matter what. It’s fool proof. Unless you get water-packed artichokes … then salad has no flavor and the dressing falls apart. Also, in the original version, which my mom makes, the salad calls for a can of sliced black olives. I don’t like olives, so I leave them out. But in all fairness, I thought you should know.

*** Thanks to Mark, my talented husband, for having a better eye for proportion and balance than I. I’d have no photography with this post otherwise. xo

In my formative food years, tacos were pretty standard fare. Regardless of where I got them – at a sit-down restaurant, a fast food drive through, or my mom’s house – there wasn’t a lot of variety: Hard, corn tortilla shells; mildly spiced ground beef; cheddar (I think) cheese; lettuce; tomatoes; and if I was feeling crazy a little dollop of sour cream.* Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

As a result, I really hadn’t had a taco in some time. While I liked them fine, they were never a must-have favorite. Outings to Mexican restaurants were filled with more interesting enchiladas and big-as-my-head burritos. And I was happy.

Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked.

On a random Friday night, Mark and I headed to Pueblo Solis, a little family-owned Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood. We love it there. The food is always good, the staff is great, and the house margarita (no need to get a super fancy one) is downright delicious.

This particular visit, however, there was something new. I learned about an off-the-menu special: the fish tacos. I said, to myself, “Self, that sounds delightful.” For some reason, the idea of grilled (not fried) fish struck me as refreshing. I needed a change of pace.

When my dinner was placed in front of me, I was instantly pleased. Four flour-tortilla-wrapped tacos – perhaps I should call them what they really are: four little packages of fish-filled love – were on the plate, along with usual (and yummy) refried beans and rice, and a couple of slices of lime.

Opening up the first taco to add a squeeze of lime, the taco fillings were beautiful to behold. The gorgeous, flakey grilled tilapia (which is super fresh and sourced from Bob’s Seafood) contrasted against the colorful and robust pico de gallo and complemented the crisp and cool and crunchy lettuce. An effective and effusive sprinkle of fresh cilantro brightened up the entire dish.

YYUUMMM! Order this, and you'll be happy! Fish Tacos, photo by Trish Sharp.

It all seems so simple. It didn’t seem so complicated. That’s why what happened next is beyond explanation.

I don’t remember much after my first bite. All I can recall is that when my head cleared (was that my second margarita?) there was nothing left. My plate was clear. I wanted more. No, that doesn’t quite capture it: I needed more!

I was hooked on fish tacos.

Perhaps is has something to do with the fairy dust. Well, maybe it isn’t exactly fairy dust, but it sets these fish tacos apart and ahead of all others. It’s the thinnest schmeer ever of special sauce. When I asked Moni Ramos, general manager and the all-around great guy who greets every guest, about the tacos’ fairy dust sauce, he generously told me it was made from mayonnaise, mustard, and roasted garlic.

“That’s it?,” I asked.

“Yes, that’s it,” he replied … with a grin.

The grin is what makes me think there is some other magic in there. He’s just not telling me, and that’s ok. It keeps me coming back!

What started off as a special for Lent is now a permanent off-the-menu treat. If you’re going to get the fish tacos, you have to know to ask for them. Now that you’re in the know, do it! Head down to Pueblo, order up your margarita (really, you just have to do it), get your fish tacos, and Eat It, St. Louis!

Pueblo Solis
5127 Hampton Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63109
314-351-9000
http://www.pueblosolisstl.com

Pueblo Solis on Urbanspoon

*The first time I ever had sour cream on Mexican food was in a little restaurant in Lamar, Colorado, with my grandmother. It was a new idea for me, and I read it on the menu. I asked her if I should ask them to leave off the sour cream (quelle horror, some many years later!). She looked at me and plainly said, “Well, Amy Ann, we are in a Mexican restaurant that is owned and operated by a Mexican family. If you want to eat it the way it is supposed to be, then have it the way they make it.” Great wisdom from a great lady.

We, in St. Louis, take our food seriously.  Our independent restaurant culture is a force to be reckoned with. Living in mid-America, we have access to locally grown produce and locally raised livestock.  Our artisanal bakers keep raising the standards of excellence.

To heck with all the platitudes, food in St. Louis is just plain good and the food scene itself  is vibrant.

When you love something as much as we love food, why not throw a party (or two) to celebrate it?*

On Sunday, June 26, foodies can get up-close and personal with many of their favorite restaurants at Sauce Magazine’s reader’s choice party, Saucy Soiree.  This fabulous mix-and-mingle lets the average Joe (that’s us) chat-and-chew with the dashing trendsetters of our beloved restaurant scene.

For just $25 (in advance, $30 cash-only at the door) you’ll be treated to divine nosh from Farmhaus, Salume Beddu, Annie Gunn’s, Niche, Sidney Street, Bridge, Pappy’s BBQ, Salt, Modesto, Bailey’s Choc. Bar, Schlafly, Mike Shannon’s, Harvest, Chaumette Vineyards, Prime 1000, Kakao Chocolate, Eleven Eleven Mississippi, Molly’s in Soulard, and many more.

What’s more, you get to indulge in this lovely little feast at the super swanky Four Seasons Hotel (I love this venue and Trisha D., who makes every event perfection). Trust me when I tell you that the ticket is worth the price of admission!

As an aside, when you attend this event you’ll affirm your position as a foodie “insider.” The results of Sauce Magazine’s Reader’s Choice poll will be revealed here – and only here – ahead of publication.

Perhaps, though, you’re looking for something a bit more intimate? Check out A Feast in The Field at Claverach Vineyard and Organic Farm, hosted by Slow Food St. Louis, also on June 26.

This deluxe and elegant celebration of the bounty grown at Claverach will feature luminaries from many of the St. Louis area’s premiere eateries. The super-star slow-food-supporter chefs who’ve developed the evening’s meal – which includes dishes such as fried squash blossoms stuffed with duck confit and served with a savory sabayon and petite beet terrine, and barbequed glazed Heath Putnam Farm mangalista pork belly over Hodgson Mills yellow corn cake and bacon jam with a mélange of Overlook Farm pickled carrots, Ozark Forest shitake mushrooms, radish “shards, and Claverach Farm shoots – are:

On any given evening, I’d be over the moon to have a meal prepared by any one of these chefs. To have all of these talented, passionate artists working together for one night is almost too much for my little head and heart to process. This is the All-Star Game for any serious foodie.

Tickets for Feast in The Field are on sale now. If you’re a member of St. Louis Slow Food, tickets are $100 each. For non-members, tickets are $125.  This unique experience will begin at 3:00 pm and go until the last bit of deliciousness is had.

From the bottom of my happy foodie heart, thank you to all of the wonderful publications and organizations that support eating well and living well in St. Louis. More and more, our region is defined by the excellence found in our restaurants, our farmer’s markets, and on the tables of terrific home cooks. It is a true benefit of our St. Louis community that we can experience all of this passion and creativity in so many different ways … and at different price points. There truly is something for everyone.

A lovely summer Sunday night demands plans. Decide which event whets your appetite, buy a ticket, and Eat It, St. Louis!

*I love the independence of my blog, so I never accept “free” tickets in exchange for a blog post like this. I happen to really believe in what is going on here and I’m delighted to be able to support great efforts. Just thought you’d like to know …

I’ve been waving this banner my entire cocktail-drinking life. I had my first run-in with gin – which I believe was from a clear plastic bottle with G-I-N in big black letters on a white label – some 20+ years ago. With the fervor of a teetotaler, I have eschewed gin, turned my nose up at the idea, and openly chided friends who would freely choose a gin cocktail.

Then there is the Subcontinental at The Royale: gorgeous and green; fresh and refreshing; exotic and delicious. And loaded with gin … good gin … Bombay Sapphire, to be exact.

The life changing elixer: The Subcontinental.

Before I ever read the description on the menu, I saw it served to another patron. What intrigued me was the color. Served in a rocks glass, this original cocktail from the creative minds of proprietor Steve Smith and his long-time friend, Tim O’Connell, is the color of grass.*

When I asked the bartender about the lovely green drink, he launched into a near poetic description. This isn’t some fruity drink that’s all greened-up with Midori. No, no, no. The green comes from cucumbers; whole, beautiful cucumbers that Steve and his staff juice – skin and all – fresh every day.

And then he said the word I dreaded to hear: “Gin.” Gasp and heartbreak. I was all in up to that point. Geez louise, I HATE GIN. How could I reconcile my strident position on gin?

So, I simply contemplated the Subcontinental for several months. I sat on it. I struggled with the idea. I wanted to make this work. Cucumbers in cocktails was just too much to pass up and overlook. This was damned near a moral dilemma.

Then, on a clandestine evening that began as a simple dinner date at The Royale with my sweet husband, things took a turn. When the way-cooler-than-me waiter came to the table, I timidly asked him about the Subcontinental. When he noted my hesitation over the “gin situation,” he suggested that he could make the drink with vodka (that my friends, is booze I do NOT hate!). He also noted, with an air of sadness that verged on grief, that the cocktail would not be nearly as good.

I gave in. I argued with myself that it was worth the $7** gamble. I ordered up the Subcontinental.

And it was life changing.

When I lifted the glass to take my first sip, the fresh scent of summertime filled my nose. (This is an especially wonderful experience during the dead of winter.) The drink itself was savory with and edge of sweet. It was lovely, and smooth, and I had an uncustomary change of heart.

Perhaps, in the context of the Subcontinental, not only do I not hate gin … but I LOVE GIN.

I’m glad I opened up. This sort of conversion makes me wonder – in my foodie mind – what else I need to try that I maybe haven’t liked so much in the past.

So, while I think about what I might try next, I offer you a hearty “sláinte!”*** and encourage you to open yourself up to the possibilities you may have shut down because of one bad experience. You might find that you like to Eat It, St. Louis!

The Royale
3132 South Kingshighway Boulevard
Saint Louis, MO 63139-1108
(314) 772-3600

* Unfortunately, you’re stuck with my not-so-fabulous photography. This picture doesn’t even begin to do the drink justice.

** On Sundays, the Subcontinental is just $5 … what a deal!

*** Sláinte (pronounced Slan-cha) is the traditional Irish toast. It translates literally to “health.”

Royale on Urbanspoon

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