Thursday, December 31, 2015

Holiday Cookies for the Homeless 2015

Members of CHS Italian Club in front of the donation box

From December 17th-18th, I ran and  participated in Italian Club's 4th annual Holiday Cookies for the Homeless Drive.

The Holiday Cookies for the Homeless program was started by Howard County resident Lisa Jablonover as a way to give back to those less fortunate by baking homemade holiday cookies and distributing them to the Day Resource Center - a Grassroots program that provides meals, showers, limited laundry and social services to homeless individuals and families in Howard County, Maryland.

Italian Club members sorting out the cookies
This year, the Day Resource Center received an astounding 1,700 cookies thanks to everyone's collective effort- almost half of this amount came from the Italian Club. We were able to increase our donation count from last year and support more people during the holidays.  A shout-out goes to several other Centennial High School clubs for donating cookies - Red Cross, Salvation Army, Culinary Club, Model Congress, Model United Nations and Guitar Club.  Huge thanks you to my grandmother for making this event possible by introducing me to Ms. Jablonover in the first place and donating cookies.
Using the cookie press

 Charles and I first participated in the program back in 2011(click here) when our Grandma Alberta introduced us to the program's founder Lisa Jablonover.

From 2012-2014, we got our high school Italian Club involved in the the program (see here for 2012) and challenged other school clubs to a bake-off competition.  The winner receives a pizza party courtesy of the Italian Club (see more here for 2013 and here for 2014).

The final step: delivering the cookies

I decided to bake festive cream-cheese cookies this year. The ingredients are as follows, for about 3 dozens cookies: 3 ounces of cream cheese, 1 cup of salted butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 egg yolk, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and 2.5 cups of flour.

Remember, just because the 2015 holiday season is over, doesn't mean that Grassroots doesn't need our help. Contact Grassroots here to find out more ways you can help out.


Last-minute reservations in Howard County for New Year's Eve

Get read to boogy down, drink champagne and indulge in fabulous food. It's New Year's Eve 2015! Here are some places that are still taking reservations in Hoco if you're a last-minute larry:

Make reservations here

 Click  here to find out more about the event and the fixed price menu

To make reservations and check out their fixed price new year's eve menu click here

To make reservations and check out their fixed price new year's eve menu click here

To make reservations click here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Petit Louis (Bistro)- Columbia, Maryland lakefront

Bonjour Petit Louis, it has been awhile. 

Arranged by my high school French teacher Madame Doff, Petit Louis welcomed my French class for a 3-course lunch to introduce us to French cuisine. 
During the course of two days, Petit Louis served lunch to over 200 French students from Centennial High School. This is actually my first time eating at the bistro section of Petit Louis (click here to view our Petit Louis comptoir post).

Me with my friends  at an enormous table

Me meeting CEO Tony Foreman (r) the special event coordinator (L)

My first impression of Petit Louis -  it made me feel as though I had been transported halfway around the globe to an authentic parisian bistro. The dark wood paneling, bistro chairs and tables and the intimate lighting all create a cozy and sophisticated atmosphere that screams French. 

Once our student group was seated, we were warmly greeted by CEO Tony Foreman who spoke to us about the restaurant and our lunch ….and ready for this -  IN FRENCH. That's right, Mr. Foreman, the noted celebrity restauranteur - who along with acclaimed chef Cindy Wolf has several other award winning establishments including Charleston, Pazo, Chinghiale, and Johnny' -  took the time to help high school students improve their French. That's really cool. 

Immediately following Mr. Foreman's speech, a parade of servers with family style-food trays rushed out of the kitchen. It was reminiscent of the "Be Our Guest" movie scene from Beauty and the Beast. The waiters were so happy to serve us and explain each dish. We were off to a great start.

The hors d'oeuvres included gourgères, canapé de bettrave, and gravlax canapés. What's a good french bistro without remarkable pastries, right? Petite Louis did not disappoint. Even though this was my first time trying gourgères, this certainly won't be my last. This savory and puffy choux (light pastry dough) pastry filled with gruyere cheese was perfection - warm and buttery, melt-in-your mouth goodness. 
Canapé de bettrave and gravlax canapés

The canapé de bettrave (red beets, chèvre, walnut vinaigrette, and belgian endives) was also terrific. I'm now totally enamored with endives. It tastes like a less bitter and thinner version of celery. When paired with beets and chèvre cheese it was a great mix of sweet, salty and crunchy.  The gravlax canapés were a hit for me too and had the same feel (sweet, salty and crunchy) but in a different way. The combination of the house-cured salmon with salty gravlax capers and sweet crème fraîche sitting atop crunchy, thin toast slices is mighty good.
Pomme frites

The second course arrived with pomme frites, quiche aux legumes, salad verte and croque monsieur.

The pomme frites were quickly eaten up at my table, but I can't blame them. Long and thin fresh cut potatoes, lightly crispy with a hint of salt.  It was hard not to eat the entire bowl.

Quiche aux légumes
Each slice of the quiche aux légumes (butternut squash and chèvre) had a deliciously light pastry crust filled with generous amount of sweet butternut squash topped with fluffy cream, eggs and cheese filling.  PL quiche is tall and thick, just the way I like it. Some students got full on the other entrees before they ate their slice, which just meant more for me. Yep, I had 2 slices.
Salade verte

French food emphasize fresh, simple ingredients. This salade verte is a prime example of an authentic french salad- mesclun greens, reggiano, and red wine vinaigrette. Simply delicious.

Croque monsieur

The Croque Monsieur was probably the biggest hit at my table. Again, the emphasizes was on fresh, homemade ingredients. Each individual ingredient was perfect in and of it self. Put together and grilled it was  a masterpiece. The students at my table commented that they could eat this "ham and cheese" sandwich everyday for lunch.

For dessert, we received an "assortment de patisseries" (housemade cookies and French pastries). Unfortunately, I couldn't take a picture because it was eaten up so quickly but trust me when I say it was all good too.

After trying Petit Louis' bistro section, I have a newfound appreciation for all the effort that's put into making the meals. There's a lot of love going on in that kitchen. I really respect that a well noted restaurant would take the time to help 200 local high school French students in their educational endeavors. I hope they invite us back next year.

Merci beaucoup Petit Louis et Tony Foreman.

- Thomas Regnante

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Famous Dave's new menu item - Columbia, MD

Famous Dave's restaurant is known for its barbecue, but can a new menu item gain just as much popularity? Famous Dave’s just added fried chicken to the menu courtesy of a homemade recipe from none other than the restaurant's owner Dave Anderson.

The entrée will be sold at select Famous Dave’s locations in Maryland every Sunday from November 15th through January 31st. I was invited to the Columbia, Maryland Famous Dave's for a taste.

Chicken wing and breast meat with corn bread muffin and 
garlic red-skin mashed potatoes

The new entree deal includes two choices: a fried half chicken dinner (four pieces of chicken served with one side and a corn bread muffin) for $9.99 or a fried chicken-n-meat combo (fried chicken paired with your choice of one meat, corn-on-the-cob, choice of two sides and a corn bread muffin) for $16.29.
I took my mom with me to the tasting. We both received a piece of fried chicken, a corn bread muffin, and two sides. The fried chicken was crispy, but not as crispy or oily like the fried chicken made at KFC or Popeyes.

It reminded me more of a homemade recipe. The seasoning was interesting- slightly peppery that packed a mild kick after a couple of bites. At first, it caught me off guard but with my big glass of cold water it worked out perfectly.

While Famous Dave's has an eclectic variety of sauces to douse on any entree ranging in spiciness from rich & sassy to devil's spit and everything in between, if the fried chicken's peppery undertone isn't enough to spice up your meal, the restaurant has you covered with three new sauces: white BBQ, buffalo with honey (mild), and Wilbur’s revenge with honey (hot).

Chicken thigh with a corn bread muffin and sweet corn

The corn bread muffin was just amazing - warm, sweet, buttery melt-in-your-mouth goodness. My mother and I are so enamored with this sweet muffin that we will be purchasing some via carry out for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Wilbur beans and potato salad

For our sides, we decided to try four different items - the Wilbur beans, potato salad, sweet corn, and garlic red-skin mashed potatoes. If I had to pick just one (like in the "fried half chicken dinner"), I would go with the sweet corn or the mashed potatoes. While I enjoyed the beans, mash and corn, we weren't crazy about the potato salad as the dressing was a little bland.

Thomas and the Columbia, Maryland Famous Dave's manager. He's a really cool guy who made us feel like family
Although we were invited to taste the new fried chicken, the manager offered us a taste of the famous ribs. I couldn't resist. 

Yes, the ribs tasted just as good as they look above. Finger licking, packed full of tender meat, good. Fried chicken and ribs -what a classic combo. I was a happy man. 

I'd definitely give the new fried chicken a try. Let us know how you liked it. 

Thanks for the invite Famous Dave's!!!!

-Thomas Regnante

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Syracuse, Italy - Farmer's Market

Welcome back to our mini series on Sicily! For those of you who are unaware, my family and I visited our ancestral home of Sicily this summer. We decided to chronicle our trip and turn it into a series of blog posts. Check out our first Sicilian blog post here. This time, we are focusing on the town of Syracuse ( aka Siracusa in southwestern Sicily). 

Look at the beautiful view of the ocean!
Syracuse is an ancient city rich with culture and beauty. Even after time has eroded the antiquated town, the townspeople still hold rituals and traditions practiced long ago. An example of an ancient traditions still expressed today can be illustrated by Syracuse's fresh daily market. Every day, locals come in the morning to purchase items to indulge upon later that day. Let's take a look at some of the produce:

Our tour guide showing all the different spices to my grandfather.

Considering that Syracuse is geographically situated on the water, it should be no surprise that there's a huge seafood industry. Vendors sell all types of fish ranging from tuna and swordfish (ample amounts of swordfish can be seen above) .

Charles observing workers sorting out sea urchins.

Sicilians know that herbs and spices are just as important as the entree itself, so Sicilians use a wide variety of herbs and spices in their cooking.

There can't be an Italian market without tomatoes. Essentially, Italians use tomatoes for everything ranging from pasta to pizza.

Zucca is a unique Italian fruit, also known as Italian squash. For cooking, it is usually combined with zest, cardamom seeds and other curative herbs. These savory, sweet, and fresh fruits are a must try on any Sicilian vacation. Who knows, you might like these better than regular squash.

Sicily has a very mild Mediterranean climate that allows an eclectic group of fruits and vegetation to thrive (as pictured above). Plus, the farmers here don't use pesticides or preservatives on their crops, just as nature intended it to be. 

Do you love watermelon? Well look no further because Sicily has just about the juiciest and most succulent watermelon there can be. By saying that Sicily has great watermelon, I would be selling myself short.

 I could go on and on about how I was amazed by all the wonders that the city has to offer, but words cannot completely describe my time in Syracuse. My recommendation, go to Syracuse and experience the same sense of elation that I once felt. In case any of you are considering my recommendation, my family and I stayed at the Grand Hotel Ortiga (which gorgeously overlooks the ocean). I would love to hear your stories and anecdotes from the ancient city in the comments section. In the meantime, arrivederci Syracuse, it was a pleasure.

-Thomas Regnante