Crab Dip Au Gratin

Crab au GratinThis dip is a popular crowd pleaser at our annual Holiday Party. The richness of the crab pairs perfectly with thin slices of fresh french bread. I served the dip in an uber cool burnt red Emile Henry Flame Top Fondue Pot I found at Sur La Table. The fondue set’s flame keeps the dip warm and spreadable throughout the evening. And it looks so much chicer than a chafing dish. Using fresh lump crab meat was crucial here – I bought the chilled canned variety sold at my local Whole Foods. Do not mistake this for the traditional canned crab you can buy off the supermarket shelf – they are entirely different. The great thing about this recipe is that it can be made earlier in the day and baked just prior to serving.

This recipe was adapted from one found in The Junior League of Birmingham’s cookbook “Tables of Content,” a treasured gift from my grandmother. My version is as follows.

Crab Dip Au Gratin

1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter
1 Bunch Green Onions – thinly sliced (white and some green)
1/3 Cup All-purpose Flour
1 12 oz can Evaporated Milk
1/2 Cup Whole Milk
2 Egg Yolks, lightly beaten
1 TSP Salt
1/2 TSP Cayenne Pepper
1/2 TSP Ground Black Pepper
1 lb lump crab meat – shelled
8 ounces shredded Swiss Cheese
8 ounces grated Parmesan Cheese
1/2 Cup Sherry

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the fresh crab meat – pick through looking for any missed pieces of shel. Place aside. Melt the butter in a large non-stick skillet and add the green onion. Saute until tender but do not brown. Remove from heat and stir in the flour. Mix the evaporated and whole milk in a separate bowl (or large measuring cup) and mix in the egg yolks until well combined. Stir the milk into the onion mixture and add the salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper. Cook over a medium heat for about five minutes, or until the mixture has thickened to a sauce like consistency, stirring constantly. in a large bowl combine the crab meat and sauce mixture. Do not over combine – try and maintain some of the lump texture of the crab. Gently fold in both cheeses and the sherry until just combined; spread into 9 x 13 baking dish or oven-proof serving piece (in my case the enameled fondue pot*). If making earlier in the day, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Prior to serving bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is bubbly and golden brown. Serve with hearty crackers or thin slices of french bread.

* I double this recipe to fill the large enamel fondue pot pictured and increase the baking time to 25 to 30 mins.

“Chairs For Charity” Santa Fe Berger

I was excited to be asked to participate in the 5th Annual DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) “Chairs for Charity” event held on November 7th at Consentino.  The event was sponsored by Chicago Home + Garden Magazine and featured the designs of 15 area design professionals.  The parameters were clear – we were asked to take a vintage chair and rework it as a submission for the event’s silent auction.  My inspiration came from trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico – where my parents live. On my last trip I came across this handsome and very old Mexican Blanket at a local resale shop. In spite of its age, the color and condition were fantastic. The blanket served as the primary upholstery for a circa 1960s Bergere Chair which I came across at a North Shore estate auction. For the piping and trim I used a silk burlap which complemented the geometric pattern in the blanket beautifully. The deep honey color of the wood strongly framed the piece – reminding me of the waxed wooden vigas seen in and around New Mexico.  At the end of the night my chair sold (woo hoo), the perfect finale for an inspiring and affirming night.

Two Dining Gems in Paris

After 48 in London – we took the train across the channel to Paris for four days and the women’s fashion market. Jimmy and I have been doing this trip twice annually for years and have built up a great restaurant stockpile. We like more casual spots where the locals go and forgo fine dining spots. This time we made two great new discoveries.

Frenchie Wine Bar

When I initially emailed the concierge about reservations at Frenchie – the most buzzed about restaurant in Paris – she told me not to to bother “they NEVER answer their phone – it’s maddening.” Of course this made me want a seat at Chef Gregory Marchand’s table all the more. Luckily additional sleuthing uncovered the fact that he and his team also operate a more casual 40 seat wine bar directly across the street from their small restaurant – and that spot does not take reservations. Diners line up for the 7 o’clock opening and are seated on a first come, first serve basis.

We arrived at the inconspicuous doorway on a hidden street in the 2nd at 6:40. We were number 16 in line. By 7:05 we were seated inside the cozy restaurant at a four top with an engaging couple from Minneapolis. And we were directly next to the plexi-glass wall which gave us a first hand view inside the tiny controlled kitchen. The menu consisted of about 20 sharable items – we chose six and they were all tops. We started with the Pulled Pork Sliders. The irony of eating exceptional North Carolina style BBQ in Paris was not lost on me – but this sandwich could win any American BBQ competition They were tangy and toothsome and overall just right. Next came a more traditional French dish Terrine de Campagne (country style poultry pâté), deliciously spreadable, studded with pistachios, it had a richly flavorful chunky texture, further elevated by the restaurants hardy char-crusted bread. The Fois Gras Royale was a fois gras custard made with cream & eggs – almost like creme crème brûlée. Duck jus jelly & hazelnuts topped it adding additional flavor and crunch. It was hands down the best Fois Gras I have ever experienced. Next up a hand made Papardelle with a Lamb Ragu that would make any Italian Grandmother Proud. A very interesting Seasonal Vegetable Salad followed – composed of baby vegetables softy blanched in a flavorful broth – each gently softened in the process, but not at all soggy. Finally we had Épaule de Porc – braised milk fed pork shoulder, tender and flavorful, served with a fresh corn salad – satisfying way to end the evening. For wine we shared 2 bottles of a Jean Foillard 2009 Morgan Beaujolais which paired well with all of our food. And astoundingly the entire experience came in under 200 Euro (with gratuity).

This place is remarkable, serving some of the most imaginative and well crafted food I have ever encountered, a must for any serious foodie’s Paris agenda.

Au Moulin a Vent (Chez Henri)

On Saturday we met our friend Bari to try a new spot in the 5th – one I had read about in Conde Nast Traveler. Reservations here are a must, as this place is popular with locals, so plan on making one a few weeks in advance.

What we found upon entering Au Moulin a Vent was a bustling small Parisian restaurant where the menu and atmosphere beautifully reflected the place’s classic heritage (it was opened in 1946). From the zinc bar and cellar themed memorabilia, to the long red banquettes and well starched white table clothes, the place exuded easy charm. And from the moment we crossed the threshold it was abundantly clear that we should focus on french classics.

We began with three different starters – Escargot with Garlic Butter, Haricot Vert with Lump Crab Meat and an Artichoke Salad with a Balsamic Vinaigrette. Each was prepared meticulously – allowing the freshness of the ingredients to shine. The Escargot had a wonderful earthly flavor and buttery garlic bite. With haricot vert I love the way the french use green beans as a base for a salad rather than lettuce. In this case tender beans were slightly blanched and served cold – the salty seafood flavor of the crab complimented the beans beautifully. The artichoke salad was composed of thin slices of boiled artichoke crowns which were served ice cold and clearly fresh. The bright acidity of the vinaigrette brought the subtle flavors of the artichoke to life. All in all, wonderful beginnings.

For mains it was all about the bouffe – their speciality. Bari had the Entrecote (a cut similar to a Ribeye) served with a textbook Bearnaise. Jimmy and I each had the Chateaubriand (a large cut from the tenderloin) au Poivre with Brandy Cream Sauce. Often in France the cuts of meat are not nearly as tender or flavorful as what you will find stateside. This was not the case at Au Moulin a Vent – the meat rose to the level of the sauces. Our steaks also came with a plate piled high with “Petit Pommes Rissolees” – large hunks of golden fried potatoes.

The desserts also delivered. Profiteroles with Semisweet Chocolate Sauce and the quintessential Floating Island – a monstrous piece of meringue topped with caramel and nuts – swimming in a pool of creme anglais. Glorious.

Our somewhat serious waiter lightened up as the evening progressed. And by night’s end he was joking with us, rather than at us, about or abysmal pronunciation of these french classics. In fact, as we waited for our taxi, he came over with complimentary shots of an intense mystery liquor “to warm for the road.” The perfect punctuation for a lovely meal.


frenchie bar a vins
5-5 rue du Nil (2nd)
Tél: 01 40 39 96 19
7:00 to 10:30 pm Monday – Friday, no reservations

au moulin a vent
20 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard (5th)
Tél: 01 43 54 99 37
lunch and dinner Tuesday – Friday, dinner only Saturday, reservations required


Channeling Mrs. Astor

stair photo montage

Brooke Astor StaircaseTwo summers ago I was fully engrossed in Mrs. Astor Regrets by Meryl Gordon.  The book chronicles the life and times of the legendary socialite Brooke Astor.  Mrs. Astor was a fan of Albert Hadley – perhaps my favorite of the legendary interior designers working within New York society during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Accordingly, although I fully enjoyed the gossipy tidbits within the book’s pages, what really stuck with me was Mrs. Astor’s over-the-top personal style and her flair for living well. She was an avid collector of things and people.  One such collection consisted of oil paintings of dogs – each prominently displayed in the circular stairway of her Westchester home, Holly Hill (pictured left).

I had struggled for a long time with the right design approach for the dramatic front stairway of my own home.  Gaining inspiration from her story, I loved the idea of hunting for a collection. In fact Albert Hadley once famously said “Nothing comes cheap, though an educated eye will always spot very nice things for the least money.”  As I am not an Astor this was my philosophy. However, I broadened Mrs. Astor’s concept a bit and began to collect any piece of art with an animal as the subject matter.  The pieces in my collection came from dusty antique stalls, trips to other cities, and low-ball auctions bids. In many cases I spent more on the frmaing than the pieces themselves.  And I took great care framing all in a pallet of black and gold.

Stairway The Remains of the DayWhen the time came to hang the collection I was a bit apprehensive. My mind raced with imagery of the Salon Approch (something I saw first depicted in the film The Age of Innocence). I gravitated the idea of clustering many different items together in the salon style – mixing varied shapes and subject matters. I have always been obsessed with the dramtic stairway in the English Country Estate depcited in the classic Merchant Ivory Film The Remains of the Day (filmed in England’s Powderham Castle – pictured right).  I loved the texture of the walls at Powderhorn and the richness of the three dimensional reliefs. Without a clear vision I wasn’t really ready to put hammer to nail until I had it all sorted out in my mind.

Then last fall, while on a buying trip in New York, I had dinner at a really chic West Village restaurant called The Lion.  Within their huge two story atrium dining room the designer had hung a vast array of art salon style on all the walls. Like my collection, their’s was a mix of style and subject, of photography and painting. But what really spoke to me was how the pictures were hung so that they were overlapping in some areas – like a collage.  I loved it. It created the three dimensional effect I was looking for. I wasn’t sure how the logistics would work, but I decided I would give it a go in my own stairway.

frame over-lapI know many people measure and sketch any wall grouping before actually hammering anything. Personally I prefer a more spontaneous approach – provided I have a wide array of pieces to choose from.  In this case I started with the piece which I designated as the central focus – the retriever profile.  From there I worked clockwise building pieces around each other and then finally worked up. I tried thinking of the grouping as a collage – allowing sight overlap in a few spots.  The secret to executing this effect was the use of self adhesive felt discs. I used them to add stability behind corners which need to rest away from the walls.  I also used a strong double stick tape to secure the areas where the pieces overlapped.  The end result turned out just as I had hoped. The photos really don’t do justice to the dimensional quality created by the overlap.

chair on stairwayAnd for me the poetic grace note for this project came from the fact that the wallpaper I choose for this area a year before I ever envisioned this project was “fireworks in black” for Hinson and Company by Albert Hadley.

A Birthday Dinner for Jimmy & Toni

A few days after Jim’s birthday, and a week or so after my dear friend Toni Canada’s, I hosted a seated dinner in their honor at The Richmond. Toni and I love to cook together. In February we collaborated on Fried Chicken and Waffles Dinner (my chicken, her waffles, and lots of fun) and the previous fall we co-hosted a Mexican Fiesta where she taught me how to make Cheese and Jalapeno Tamales from scratch and I added some of my family favorites from a lifetime spent around a lot of Mexican food. For this double birthday celebration we came together to create a four course menu – each taking the lead with two courses. We wanted to capitalize on the fresh flavors of the summer season.

The sixteen guests were broken into two tables and we switched seating mid-way through the evening to allow more people to mix and mingle. This summer for some reason I was really feeling blue ginghham – so I built the feel of the dining tables around blue check tablecloths (creating a less formal feel with the picnic pattern). And I elevated things a bit by using china and pressed white napkins for the place settings.  Hydrangeas from my garden served as the beginning for the center pieces.

For the cocktail hour my friend Jen Kim and I juiced a watermelon earlier in the day to make Watermelon Margaritas with fresh lime juice.  We also juiced a pound of summer tomatoes which served as the base for a Tomato Martini with Blue Cheese Olives (she graciously stuffed a few dozen with Maytag blue).  And for dinner we kept things simple with a case of a remarkable Rose (see post below).

Toni began her courses with a lovely Tomato and Watermelon Gazpacho that had the perfect amount of heat.  She topped each bowl with a feta garnish.  I made the easiest cheese straws ever by coating two sheets of frozen puff pastry (I like Defours brand the best – available in the frozen foods section of Whole Foods) with melted butter, an egg wash and a heavy dose of parmesan cheese, before cutting them into strips with a pastry wheel and baking.  Next up Lump Crab Cakes (perfectly executed by Toni with just enough added ingredients to add flavor and hold them together) served on a giant heirloom tomato slice with Remoulade.  I made a the sauce for the crab cakes from a recipe I developed based on a salad dressing my Mississippi grandmother bottled in her kitchen and sold in the 1950s.

For the entree we had Roasted Beef Tenderloin Medallions with a Habanero BBQ Sauce served over White Corn Grits with Summer Corn (cut from the cob earlier in the day and mixed into the hot grits just before serving). My friend Matt Summy orders stone ground grits from Anson Mills in Columbia South Carolina and he is always good enough to share a few bags. The flavors mingled beautifully on the plate and I finally cooked a tenderloin to a perfect medium rare.  I began with three 3 lb tenderloins, rubbed with salt, course ground pepper and olive oil.  I let them rest and come to room temperature for about an hour before they went into the oven.  I roasted the tenderloins in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the internal temperature was 125 degrees.  It is critical to check the meat often with a instant read thermometer to avoid over-cooking. Once out of the oven I tented them with foil and let them rest another 10 minutes before serving.

For dessert I made a Lemon Chiffon Pie – served with fresh whipped cream and a raspberry coulis.  The pie was the perfect light bite to end the evening. In fact I thought everyone was in a food coma until I saw the second table in the living room being broken down so guests could create a dance floor.  I’m not sure if that was inspired by the festive atmosphere or the case of Rose we kicked before dinner was half way over.  Eitherway it was a magical evening.  And as a special birthday present for Jimmy and Toni, Amanda had Tasya, a photographer, on hand to capture some of that magic. However luckily for everyone, she was long gone by the time the dancing began.

see more photos from the night

photography by Tasya Menaker –

Seen & Noted: Remarkable Rosé

7712738094_aece55b599To me (and it seems everyone else of late) the summer months are all about Rosé.  The color, crisp temperature, and flavor seem perfectly suited for warmer weather. And when it comes to dining out, or entertaining at home, Rosé pairs beautifully with the fresh ingredients of the season.

For a recent dinner party at the Richmond (pictured left) I asked my local wine merchant for a reccomendation. I wanted a Rosé which could take me through my whole menu.  From Crab Cakes to Gazpacho, from Beef Tenderloin to Lemon Chiffon pie.  And I wanted a bottle that met somewhere between overly sweet and dry and came in at around $10 a bottle.

He hit the nail right on the head with the Villa des Agnes 2011 Old Vines Rosé. From France, the winery is situated on the ruins of an ancient Roman Villa (and the angel on the label makes a great nemonic for wine novices like myself.)  Described as “a light-bodied wine, intensely crisp and vividly fresh, it offers complex aromas of strawberries and red currants, with a hint of quince” it is a winner.  In fact so much so that a case seemed to disappear quickly at our seated celebration.

Also noted is a new trend of seeing Rosé on tap at some of the country’s hottest restaurants.  I recently enjoyed way too many glasses at The Nomad in NYC. From their sexy dark library bar, through four exquisite courses in the atrium, the wine anchored my experience. There the 20L Kegs of 2011 Syrah/Grenache from Bieler Pére et Fils, Coteaux D’iax en Provence, France come out at $10 a glass.