Insidious Encounters: Thought Control, Young Love, and a Mother’s Nightmare

This is a story about predatory alienation and a mother’s fight for her daughter. Unfortunately the story is true. While this is an abrupt break from my usual (and long-ago) posting about lighter and happier topics, it’s an important story and one I felt I needed to share. If all you do is skim the story and look at some of the pictures, all I ask is that you follow along at http://www.sampateam.com, http://www.sampateam.wordpress.com, and their related social media handles (facebook, twitter).

 Warning: Some of the language that follows is not suitable for young audiences and may act as a trigger to survivors of sexual assault and rape.

SampaTeam1

From the quiet streets of small town Connecticut, to the World Wide Web, one mother is waist-deep in a fight to bring her daughter home, or at least to the table. Kathryn Cannon is a mother to triplets—one son and two daughters—who has endured her fair share of heartbreak and tragedy. Shortly after the birth of her three children in August 1992, the love her life and the father of her newly born babies, John Cannon, lost his battle with cancer.

Tasked with raising three young ones, Kathi (as many of her friends and family know her) spared no expense or time in an effort to give her children the best they deserve, as any loving and capable mother hopes to do. As her premature babies grew into toddlers and then teenagers, new hopes, opportunities, and challenges quickly emerged. For these three children—the best of friends since birth—the loss of a father they never knew pales in comparison to the more recent loss of a sister they have always known and loved.

Sampateam

Pregnant with triplets!

Pregnant with triplets!

To be a teenager is to “know” love and heartbreak, wrestle with poor choices and personal victories, and ultimately accept frustrations and family drama—it’s all part of the process. The Cannon family is no different. In March of 2009, Samantha Cannon reached the same milestone faced by millions of young women and men worldwide: she started dating. Her first date was to a horror movie, which was atypical of Samantha, who—according to her family—hated scary movies. Unbeknownst to them at the time this was the start of some very abnormal behavior. Only the clarity of hindsight allows Samantha’s family to appreciate how much Samantha changed while trapped in the throes of unbridled teenage love.

It isn’t particularly groundbreaking that teenagers reinvent themselves to impress a love interest. Anna Breslaw at Cosmopolitan Magazine has written extensively (and humorously) about the perils of being a “cool girl.” The struggle between being your authentic self versus projecting an artificial persona for the sake of the people you start to date. The “cool girl” is so characteristic of young women (and “cool guy” for young men) going through the trials and tribulations of teenage-years, that it takes self-exploration, development, and ultimately acceptance, before one can come to terms with their authentic self and also find a love that treasures and nurtures our individual authenticity. This battle between what we are, and what we think we should be, plagues so many people, and ultimately separates healthy maturity from damaging insecurity down the road in life.

So perhaps Samantha’s willingness to see a scary movie was just a mild case of cool-girl syndrome. Perhaps it was just one more girl trying to impress one more boy. Perhaps this would have been the end of Samantha and Jeffrey’s story, a high school happily ever after. The rest of their story makes it abundantly clear that a neat and textbook ending for Samantha and Jeffrey would be wishful thinking. Instead, their romance has become one family’s lived horror movie, played out before them daily on nearby streets and far-flung screens.

Jeffrey and Samantha continued their teenage dream—as so many of us do—far longer any casual observer could understand. Admittedly, Samantha’s family did not have any opinions about Jeffrey as possible “forever” material at the time: few parents start speculating on their child’s romantic future when the subject in question is all of sixteen. But the Cannon family accepted that Samantha’s happiness was worth supporting, including her youthful relationship. Kathi played the role of awkward mom-turned-chauffeur for the two lovebirds—driving them to and from dates, welcoming Jeffrey to family dinners, cookouts, and small celebratory parties. Jeffrey came to events at Samantha’s grandparents house in New Hampshire, and Kathi even bought him some dress shoes to spruce up his outfit for senior prom. He helped with yard work at the Cannon house and refused payment for his work, so Kathi compensated him with a new jacket as a thank-you gift. As far as first loves go, things were progressing smoothly and pleasantly, and neither family had any objection to their young romance.

In August of 2010, Samantha began her freshman year at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, her late father’s alma mater and her only school application after visiting twenty-three schools. The long-distance, massive changes, and life decisions that accompany college are rarely a recipe for lasting love. Nonetheless, Samantha slowly adjusted to the new distance between her and Jeffrey, and gradually began to isolate herself. The first change was her decision to give up her favorite sporting passions—field hockey and lacrosse— to insure that she would have time to go home and see Jeffrey.

Despite a successful first and second semester, and frequent declarations of love for the school and students alike, Samantha suddenly said she was unhappy at Ursinus. In fact, Samantha suggested to her mother that she might transfer to her boyfriend’s school, Springfield College, to be closer to him as he started his freshman year that fall. As most mom’s would, Kathi suggested that her daughter could find a school nearby—still close to Jeffrey and to home—with a better academic reputation – one that more closely aligned with Sam’s interests and abilities. Unfortunately, Samantha had absolutely no interest in exploring other options. Being at school with her boyfriend took precedence over her academic potential.

As summer 2011 began, Samantha’s relationships beyond Jeffrey began to unravel. Unbeknownst to Samantha’s siblings, mother, grandparents, friends, or extended family, she was baptized secretly in Jeffrey’s family church. Living Rock Church in Killingworth, CT is a fringe “non-denominational” Christian church that practices a more obscure and cultic brand of Christianity than most would feel comfortable with. Samantha’s secret baptism happened the first week she was home on summer vacation. Her family did not become aware of this secret baptism until a year later, when they discovered an audio recording of this covert-baptism. In the audio recording, the Living Rock Church pastor announces that the ceremony was not really a baptism, not truly a “re-birth” but “rather a funeral—a funeral for all in [her] life that has come before.” Under clandestine measures, Samantha’s boyfriend’s family was beginning to separate Samantha from the Cannon family, literally baptizing her into their fold. Samantha’s baptism-turned-funeral marks the death of her identity: her family, her experiences, and her authentic self.

Samantha’s 2011 summer at home was a worrying one for her family. She spent increasingly less time at home—using every free moment to spend time with Jeffrey and his family. Kathi pleaded with her daughter to bring Jeffrey over for a dinner, swim, or canoe in the river, barbeque—“just spend some time at home with your family too, please.” On the rare occasion, Samantha did bring Jeffrey over, she no longer acted like her independent, fun-loving, self. She was subservient to Jeffrey in her own home—taking orders from him and alertly waiting for a new demand. Jeffrey would constantly tease her—saying they would have to break up because he “guessed” she didn’t “love” him anymore. “I guess we’ll have to break up.” Samantha would throw herself at him and shower him in kisses to prove her love. He would maintain the charade far beyond the realm of amusing. The balance of power in their relationship had shifted, and onlookers were concerned for Samantha’s wellbeing.

Fortunately, the summer ended and Samantha returned to Ursinus while Jeffrey began his freshman year at Springfield. As Samantha settled into a residential dorm amongst good friends, with her triplet sister nearby, Kathi felt at ease. This mom’s respite from parental worrying was short lived, as an acceptance letter from Springfield College arrived in the mail shortly after. Samantha had repeatedly dismissed Kathi’s concern about the application to a less academically rigorous school, and walking away from her generous scholarship from Ursinus. However, Samantha then went behind her mother’s back to apply to Springfield all the same. Sam spent the summer seemingly reluctant with each step of the application process – “forgetting” the application fee, then “forgetting” her high school transcripts. When the acceptance letter from Springfield finally arrived in the mail back at home in Connecticut, it was already two weeks into the fall semester at both schools. Samantha then continued to dismiss her mother’s concerns and insisted that she was staying at Ursinus.

Later that fall, while Samantha was at her Uncle’s house for Thanksgiving amongst family, Kathi entered into another realm fraught with friction for parents of teenagers: texting. After examining the phone bill one day, Kathi discovered that Samantha was texting. A lot. Making matters even more alarming, Samantha’s 6,000+ texts per month were almost exclusively to one number: her boyfriend’s. In an attempt to regain her daughter and bring everyone to the table, Kathi asked Sam not to text for the Thanksgiving weekend and Samantha agreed. Unsurprisingly, when Kathi checked the online phone records the next day, she found dozens of texts from that morning alone. Kathi turned off the texting for the duration of the family holiday weekend. Samantha was allowed to make phone calls, and had the use of her laptop for messaging, but text messages could no longer be sent nor received until Monday.

At some point during the holiday weekend, Kathi discovered that Jeffrey’s mother had launched into a Facebook diatribe insulting Kathi for “horrible” offenses (without naming Kathi directly), but nevertheless making it quite clear to whom she was referring. His mother never did actually say in her post what these extreme offenses were and painted a blurry picture to her Facebook friends of some unidentified “evil” meddling in her son’s life. A few months later, during a Cannon family vacation, Samantha’s siblings would persuade her to turn her phone off and spend time with them instead of texting her boyfriend nonstop. This attempt at family bonding brought threats from Jeffrey’s parents directly to Kathi, accusing her of theft because the phone Samantha was using was a second cell phone purchased by the family to prevent Kathi from interfering in Samantha’s relationship. Other than those carrying a work cell phone, a secretive second mobile phone is generally limited to the use by drug dealers, people caught in scandalous affairs, and intelligence agents.

Increasingly aware that her daughter was mixed up with an unhealthy and unstable family, Kathi brought in an expert on dangerous religions to talk to Samantha: Marlene Winnell from Berkeley, California. Marlene cautioned Samantha against making any major decisions without considering her family and the ramifications—not least among them avoiding any secret baptisms. Of course, Samantha had already partaken in the mysterious ceremony seven months earlier.

The Cannon family struggled with Samantha’s relationship and the fallout that continued to rain down upon their heads. Samantha’s friends reached out to Kathi with expressing extreme concern, and asking her to come down to Ursinus and see the letters and messages Jeffrey was sending to Samantha. Like any mother in that situation, Kathi immediately did and what she stumbled upon was enough to shock any mother into action. Below is a small sampling from the pile of many hundreds of letters she found on Samantha’s desk: [Caution: Graphic Language]

It is necessary to make an important point about BDSM at this juncture. There is a distinct and important difference between what constitutes a “kink” and what constitutes a dangerous relationship. The insistence upon blackmail-ready pornographic material, thinly-veiled threats of bodily harm, manipulative and abusive language do not indicate that this is a situation of mutual respect, love, and appreciation for one another. This is not about sexual proclivities. This type of behavior is about control and manipulation with the risk of mental and physical harm. The fact that these letters are, in fact, coupled with a young woman’s isolation from her family and friends, indicate that this relationship is something far more sinister.

A short while later, in May of 2012 Samantha disappeared from her college campus, ran away with her boyfriend for the summer to his grandmother’s house in Virginia, and ceased all communication with her family. She enrolled in her boyfriend’s sub-par college and to add injury to insult, Kathi came home one day to notice that a restraining order had been filed against her. The court summarily threw the filing out. The Judge declared that the case had no merit whatsoever and the situation was absolutely unsettling. The Judge made it abundantly clear that in her opinion, it was apparent that the Cannon family was reasonably concerned about Samantha’s welfare and personally cautioned Samantha. 2012 was not a good year for the Cannon family, and unfortunately things have not improved.

Three years later, Samantha has effectively and repeatedly backed out of multiple promises to speak to her family, or engage in major family milestones—weddings, graduations, family crises—and the police have been repeatedly called when Kathi tried to contact her daughter, despite the absence of any restraining order. In three years, Kathi has knocked on Jeffrey’s family’s door to talk to Samantha a grand total of four times. On a good day, the officer on call will know the story and leave Kathi in peace, fully acknowledging the baseless nature of Jeffrey’s family antics. In the event that a new officer gets a call, Kathi must once again repeat this long and exhausting story.

Meanwhile, the Cannon family is pursuing new and creative routes to speak with Samantha, and try to establish some form of a relationship again. Springfield College president, Mary Beth Cooper, was asked to be an asset to this family crisis. Instead, she has repeatedly shirked her duties to protect the students she leads—going as far as to congratulate Samantha and Jeffrey on another milestone—their engagement, in October of 2014 despite being well informed about the situation. To make matters worse, she has continued a frivolous “no-trespass” order issued against Kathi on the Springfield College campus. President Cooper hugged Jeffrey at graduation. If a person responsible for overseeing the success and mission of an academic institution can hug a man that writes rape fantasies and collects blackmail-worthy material, this mother should be allowed to hug her daughter.

It does not take an expert to see the perilous road that lies ahead for Samantha. Marriage is a commitment, and for many couples, a beautiful union of two people in love. For the less fortunate, it can be a commitment to a life of misery, abuse, control, manipulation, isolation, and danger. Not all families are perfect—in fact, few are—but rape fantasies, revenge porn, controlling abusive behavior, and forced familial estrangement are not the best building blocks for a loving and successful marriage.

Kathi has not demanded that Samantha move home. Kathi has not asked for anything more than a meeting, with a certified counselor, to share the concerns of the people who love Samantha—her mother, brother, sister, grandparents, cousins, and friends—and to listen to what Samantha herself has to say. The goal is simply to talk and see if a basis can be found for a relationship to move forward. The constant failure to communicate has left Kathi exhausted, exasperated and hurt. In an attempt to reach Samantha, her fight and this story is now posted and updated regularly on the web. Please lend your support by following “SampaTeam” on twitter, #SampaTeam on Facebook , and their website www.sampateam.com or www.sampateam.wordpress.com

Holiday Series: Thank the Host

I plan on posting gift guides, holiday decorating tips, and festive recipes in the next few weeks (’tis the season and all…) but before we tuck into presents and fun, let’s not forget the hosts who put everything together. If you’ve ever hosted a large gathering, then you know every bit counts–whether it’s the people who stay to help clean, pitch in on the cooking, or come early to help set up–any and all help makes a world of difference.
This holiday season, however, I hope to go beyond helping in the cleaning and cooking realm, and make sure every host I encounter knows how much I appreciate their effort with a little token of my gratitude. Holiday Series: Thank the Host
As I think about a hostess present, I consider several things. Is this a family member or friend? Do I know their hobbies, tastes, and interests? Is this my first time at their home? All of these factors collide and provide insight as to what might make an perfect present. Nonetheless, it should ideally be something the host would not normally buy for themselves (perhaps it seems too frivolous a lá a Jo Malone candle) but fits their tastes to the extent of your knowledge. If I know someone who loves cheese, or simply entertains a ton, a fancy cheese plate and/or knives would make a meaningful and useful gift they’re sure to remember. Cool and eclectic tokens of gratitude, like rose gold playing cards, will certainly stand out from the pack with a hint of luxury and cool. Fun, festive barware always works for someone who entertains–from fun glasses to unique coasters, and beyond to copper pieces. If all else fails, finding food items that are part decadent, part interesting, is always appreciated.

There’s something for everyone out there. As you brave the cold and crowds, may your holidays be full of fun and love this year, and may your hosts always know the bounds of your gratitude!

November Necessities

It’s officially November (all month long) and it’s time to break out the big three: sweaters, scarves, and coats. I’ve rounded up a few of my favorites–perfect for chilly adventures and cozy fun! November Necessities
  • Sweaters: Unsurprisingly, this fall staple is  a personal favorite. I love j.crew’s offerings for consistently well-made products that come in a pleasing array of cuts and colors. Their merino wool options are excellent, as are the cashmere ones.
  • Scarves: Capes are (supposedly) back in style and while I understand the appeal of essentially wearing a blanket, I’m not about to hop on that trend. However, there’s an easy way to get the look without committing to a purchase: get yourself a blanket scarf. You can wrap it around your neck, drape it, and belt it for a chic, slimming, and on-trend look. Fun fact: it’s still a scarf.
  • Coats: Long gone are the days of puffy, marshmallow, coats. Instead, look for fashionable options in classic cuts: pea coats (double breasted and single), robe coats that are sumptuous and stunning, and dress coats that are cut and belted for that classic Kate Middleton style.

 

Happy shopping and be sure to stay warm and stay stylish!

Idyllic Eats in Italy

The clocks have gone back an hour and the temperatures are rapidly descending, and while I’m more than ready to welcome all things cozy in the form of sweaters, soups, and holidays, I still find myself reminiscing about our honeymoon this past June. Our time on the Amalfi Coast was utterly perfect and full of adventure, relaxation, romance, decadence, and plenty of fun.

Amalfi Coat Pride and Polka Dots

Pride and Polka Dots Italy Pride and Polka Dots Positano Pride and Polka Dots Positano City Pride and Polka Dots Capri CoastFortunately, there’s one souvenir  (besides paintings and photographs) from our fun that I can make a fairly regular part of our daily lives, even in the cold. We were lucky enough to have a private cooking class with the incredibly talented women behind Donna Rosa. It was a morning and afternoon packed with food, drinks, giggles and fun. Our new friends are exactly what you would expect of famed Italian hospitality.

When we arrived at their bastion of fine Italian cooking, tucked along Montepertuso, Erika, Rosida and Mama greeted us warmly and led us through their cozy, yet elegant, restaurant. The restaurant is a local (and global) favorite for inventive fine Italian dining, with fans throughout Italy and beyond, like Jaimie Oliver and Ina Garten. Before Jordan and I knew it, we were well equipped with aprons, coffee, and fresh homemade cornetto–the Italian answer to croissants. We learned a ton of fabulous recipes and techniques thanks to Erika’s mastery and Rosida’s rapt but humorous attention. In an attempt to relive just a taste of our fun, I decided to share one of their recipes! Below is a tutorial for a simple dish that could accompany a large dinner or, in my opinion, make a perfectly acceptable main dish for a cozy but easy meal!Pride and Polka Dots Donna Rosa

Involtini Di Melanzane from Donna Rosa

You’ll need:

  • Several long and thin eggplants, tops and outer skin removed
  • Salt
  • Peanut oil
  • Mozzarella, cut into small rectangles and refrigerated to dry a bit ahead of time
  • Fresh basil
  • Fresh grated parmesan cheese
  • All purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes, pureed in a food processor


To make the Involtini:

  1. Thinly slice the peeled eggplants using a mandolin slicer. Layer them in a colander and lightly sprinkle salt on each layer to help reduce the water content of each slice. Let the eggplant drain in the sink for about 30 minutes, until the eggplant slices are “limp”. This is an old school trick to keep the eggplant from having a “bitter” taste.
  2. While you wait for the eggplant prepare the sauce. In a medium saucepan, add the extra virgin olive oil and briefly sauté the sliced/chopped garlic. When lightly golden, add pureed San Marzano plum tomatoes. Cook at low heat for 15 minutes and set aside.IMG_4101 IMG_4083
  3. Remove the excess water and salt from the eggplant slices by gently squeezing each slice between two fingers like a squeegee. Dry the slices on paper towels. In a bowl, pour the flour and allow the slices of eggplant to have flour on both sides, removing the excess by moving it with two fingers
  4. In a large saucepan, pour about 1″ peanut oil and heat until it’s very “hot”. Gently drop the slices of floured eggplant in the hot oil, gradually, without crowding the pan and remove the slices when lightly browned, but still pliable. The goal isn’t to make them crispy. Place them on paper towels to drain.
  5. Lay slices of fried eggplant on a working surface. Sprinkle fresh grated parmesan cheese on all pieces. Place a piece of the dried mozzarella and a small piece of basil at one end of each eggplant slice and roll toward the opposite end. Repeat until done, placing the rolls in the baking pan.

    The best husband, ever.

    The best husband, ever.

  6. Heat the oven to 350° F
  7. Spoon tomato sauce over each roll and bake until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly. Remove from the oven and sprinkle fresh grated parmesan cheese and fresh basil on top of each roll. Serve immediately.

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Ta-da!

It’s really an exceedingly simple dish, but satisfying enough to make a meal! It’s truly rare that a chef shares their best family recipes, so I hope you enjoy this treat as much as we (and all the fans of Donna Rosa) do! If you ever have the opportunity to dine at Donna Rosa, it is undoubtedly worth the time, money and effort!

Also, suggestion: spend the rest of your evening on the balcony with wine….sending helpful snapchats while a little buzzed and full of food!IMG_4039

Let’s Eat: Homemade Pasta

Sometimes you just win at dinner. By win, I mean you make something so excellent and exciting and special, you can’t help but brag. Cue this week’s feature: sweet potato gnocchi with a brown butter balsamic sage sauce. A little more time-consuming and high-maintenance than simply opening a box of “Easy Mac?” Sure. Worth it? Undoubtedly. I have two chef-friends in Italy who would back me up on this…fresh pasta is the BEST.
I decided, partially by popular demand, that this was worth a share and so the recipe is below. If you’re a kitchen novice, this is a good opportunity to learn a few skills–namely how to brown butter properly and an introduction to fresh pasta making.
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My recipe is adapted from Just A Taste 

Let’s start with the gnocchi. You’ll need:
  • Three sweet potatoes, washed and pierced multiple times with a fork.
  • A cup of freshly grated parmesan reggiano
  • 13 ounces fresh ricotta cheese, strained for an hour in a fine mesh sieve
  • A half teaspoon of maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2-3 cups of all purpose flour
1. Roast the scrubbed and pierced sweet potatoes (no oven explosions please!) until very tender. Remove from the oven and set aside for 10-15 minutes, until cool enough to handle.
2. Scoop the flesh from the sweet potato into a large bowl and discard the skin. Thoroughly mash/puree/rice/eviscerate the potatoes until super smooth.
3. Add the strained (we are trying to minimize excess moisture!) ricotta cheese to the sweet potatoes and mix thoroughly
4. Add the Parmesan, maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and mix again
5. Now comes the flour. Since the goal is to form dough, but maintain the fluffy-pillowy nature of the gnocchi, which means using the flour only to the extent it’s necessary. Doing this part right will distinguish your gnocchi from bricks of chunky paste. You need to incorporate flour with your sweet potato etc. gradually, thoroughly, and sparingly. We are looking for the bare minimum when it comes to the amount of flour we add.  To accomplish this, add the flour by the 1/2 cup and mix well inbetween each addition. When a dough forms (just a tad bit sticky but malleable) you’re done. For my gnocchi, it took about 2.3 cups of flour…Once you hit the 2 cup mark, it’s time to add flour in even smaller increments.
Next we go from dough to gnocchi!
6. Thoroughly flour a cookie sheet, your work surface, your hands, and by this point…all of your kitchen/clothing.
7. Separate the dough into 6 equally-sized balls. Place on of these balls on your work surface.
8.  Place one piece of dough in front of you and pat it into a rough oblong-shape. Using both hands, in a smooth back-and-forth motion and with very light downward pressure, roll the dough into a rope about a 1/2 inch thick, flouring the dough if necessary as you roll to keep it from sticking. (When you first begin making gnocchi, it might be easier to cut each oblong-piece of dough in half to roll it.)
9. Slice the rope into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Do your best to keep the size consistent as you slice. Sprinkle the little gnocchi babies lightly with flour and roll each piece quickly between your palms into a small, rough, ball. You can flour the dough/your hands  to prevent sticking.
http://daleydish.com/blog/2010/11/homemade-gnocchi.html                  photo by Daley Dish
The next step may feel excessive but keep in mind, the ridges in gnocchi help the pasta absorb and hold sauce!
10. Take a fork and hold the tines so the concave part faces up. Press each ball of dough with you thumb lightly against the tines of the fork as you roll it downward toward the tips of the tines. As the dough wraps around the tip of your thumb, it will form into a dumpling aka gnocchi aka heaven. Set each one on the floured baking sheet.
Homemade-Gnocchi
                            photo by Just A Taste
Gnocchi need to be either made right away or frozen. Set aside what you’re going to make that day, and freeze the rest.
Now to make the sauce….Brown butter balsamic sage sauce!
Before you begin this step, start boiling a large pot of water!
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You’ll need one stick of butter (1/2 cup), give or take, 1/4 cup of chopped sage leaves, 2.5 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 pepper.
  1. Heat a metal (any saucepan will do as long as it isn’t black) saucepan on medium heat. Cut the butter into equally sized pieces and melt them in the pan…
  2. As the butter melts, keep stirring so that it melts evenly. By cutting the butter into even pieces and stirring constantly, you ensure that no milk solids brown before the rest of the butter melts and result in burnt butter (not delicious)
  3. After about 40 seconds, the butter will bubble and foam–good! This is the water evaporating, which means the milk solids will be left behind to brown and get delicious. KEEP STIRRING

As the foam subsides, you should be able to see the butter changing, and the milk solids turning brown. Keep stirring and watching intentlyIMG_5726

  1. Take the pan off the heat when it starts to turn golden-brown…it continues to cook after it’s been removed from the heat, which is why people frequently blacken their brown butter

  2. After a minute, add the chopped sage and wait until it cooks a bit

  3. Add the balsamic, salt, and pepper. Stir and ta-da! You’re nearly done…

At this point, you should have a pot of boiling water. Add your gnocchi and do not crowd the pot…better to make two batches rather than create a giant sticky pasta mess. They are cooked when they float to the top, which takes about two minutes with fresh pasta! Remove with a slotted spoon and toss with the sauce.

You could always add crispy fried pancetta and ribbons of parmesan on top…this is supposed to be decadent! Either way, I’m sure you’ll be entirely happy with the result! Happy eating!

Be Cultured: Let’s Eat Cheese

Put down the Velveeta. Step away from the Kraft singles.

Cheese fraud is a serious crime against your palate, health, and overall well-being.You haven’t been eating real cheese, and it is long past time you were introduced to the good stuff via a cheese plate. It’s possible to rehabilitate and reintroduce yourself to society as a bonafide cheese connoisseur by following a few enlightening cheese suggestions (nay, commandments of biblical proportions).

A cheese plate is a perfect way to reintroduce cheese (the good stuff) to yourself and loved ones. Cheese is impressive–each piece (of real cheese) goes through an aging process, which run the gamut from days, to months, to years. Serving a cheese plate is your way of saying “I know things” while making yourself seem cultured, creative, and clever. Because, let’s face it, once your guests try a pairing of a vintage gouda with a sweet caramel sauce, you’re bound to be a hero.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/cheese

Phase One: The Basics

Let’s say you’re having a small dinner rendezvous with friends. You need to figure out how many people you’re feeding, and when you’re going to bring on the cheese.

  • Suggestions vary, and only you know your crowd, but keep it to around 3-4 oz of cheese per person
  • Decide if this is a pre-dinner cheese course or an after-dinner treat
    • Pre-dinner begs for lighter and savory options, like an herb coated goat cheese
    • Post-dinner is the perfect time for sweet, super-rich and creamy cheeses, like a triple crème goat’s milk brie

Once you know when you’re serving, and who you’re feeding, it’s time to think about what cheeses you’re going to purchase. Your best source is a knowledgeable and local cheese-monger. They can tell you what’s new and exciting, or suggest standby classics that will be an instant hit. A good cheesemonger will also let you sample the cheese, which means you know exactly what you’re getting. Lastly, ask the cheesemonger to slice your wedge of cheese fresh from off the block. This will ensure you get a perfectly ripe (aka not stale) piece of cheese.

Nonetheless, you are an adult (more or less) and can totally manage this all on your own even if you’re lacking a cheesemonger.

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fs3.media.squarespace.com%2Fproduction%2F1264487%2F14880142%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2011%2F08%2FCHEESE_PLATE_0001.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sproutedkitchen.com%2Fhome%2F2011%2F8%2F11%2Fa-summer-cheese-plate.html&h=546&w=725&tbnid=llGeVE_BAJFGVM%3A&zoom=1&docid=VcELAtrAEWmUaM&ei=C3ZHVNSOLMnOygPjiYGIDw&tbm=isch&ved=0CDIQMygCMAI&iact=rc&uact=3&dur=1154&page=1&start=0&ndsp=5

Phase Two: Picking Cheese

  • Pick a theme: U.S. farmstead cheeses? Global cheeses? French or Spanish or Italian Cheese? All cow’s milk or all blue cheese? It’s up to you, but having a plan can be helpful as a guiding principal. However, if you find a cheese that makes you especially happy, there’s nothing stopping you from including it, even if it breaks the theme’s pattern.
  • Try to include a variety of textures and flavors, unless doing a very specific plate that is meant to showcase subtle differences between blues or goat’s milk cheese (not recommended for beginners…)
  • Aim for no less than three cheeses and usually, no more than five
  • Pick from the four main categories of cheese
    • Aged–ie: aged cheddar
    • Soft–ie: camembert
    • Firm–ie:manchego
    • Blue–ie: stilton
  • You can also mix up your cheese selection by the type of milk used
    • Goat
      • IE: the Chabichou du Poitou–a fudgy textured French standout that’s bright with a hint of lemon
    • Cow
      • IE: A comté– similar to Gruyère, is a firm French cheese that has a rich and buttery feel and creamy, nutty taste
    • Sheep
      • IE: The Pecorino Tartufo Riserva–a truffled enriched, aged, Italian cheese that boasts a dense but creamy texture

Cheese plate at Parc

Phase Three: Finding Special Cheeses

The cheese below are exceptional offerings from all over the world. If you’re able to get your hands on any of them, then you are in for a treat.

Note: Shellbark Hollow Farms turn out some exceptional cheese offerings. Their website, found here, is the best resource on where to find and purchase their wares. In particular, the “Sharp 2” is noteworthy.

  • Scharfe Maxx: A cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland. This one is aged 365 days and has a distinct sharp and tangy taste, making it ideal for salty or spicy pairings
  • Vintage Gouda: From Holland, this cow’s milk cheese is a stunner that will appeal to any taste. Aged anywhere from three to five years, it has a subtle sweetness and crumbly texture with a dark amber color.
  • Epoisses de Bourgogne: a cow’s milk cheese by Jacques Hennart from the village Époisses, France. It’s frequently called the most interesting of French cheeses because it has a salty, tangy, sweet and creamy mix of flavors and is exceedingly soft. Napoleon, interestingly enough, was a fan of this particular cheese.
  • Quadrello di Bufala: From the Bergamo province in Italy, made from Buffalo milk (changing it up!. It’s a sweet-but-mild and exceedingly rich mozzarella style cheese.
  • Gorgonzola Dolce: A cow’s milk cheese from Italy, this blue is very soft and spreadable and offers a sweeter, milder, blue cheese flavor that’s ideal for anyone unsure about blue cheese.
  • Pecorino Toscano: a goat’s milk cheese produced in Tuscany. It’s a hard cheese with a delicate flavor that pairs equally well with salty or sweet accompaniments.
  • Capricho de Cabra: A goat’s milk cheese from Spain that’s super flavorful and very creamy
  • Barely Buzzed: a unique espresso and lavender rubbed cheese from Jersey cow milk, made in Utah. It’s a personal favorite and has caramel and butterscotch notes with a full-bodied and creamy texture.
  • Bathed In Victory: A cow’s milk cheese made in Pennsylvania by Doe Run Farm. It’s a buttery and slightly nutty cheese that is made with a beer wash.
  • Purple Haze: this nearly sounds like a strain of something a bit more potent, but it’s a goat cheese from California (that part isn’t a surprise, right?). The cheese is made with a mix of lavender and wild fennel pollen, so it has a distinct taste that’s utterly delicious.

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Phase Four: Accompaniments 

The cheese plate is only half finished by the time you purchase all the cheese. You can’t just stick it on a plate and call it a day! That’s some basic cheese nonsense. What’s missing are accompaniments. In order to take your cheese-on-a-plate to cheese plate mecca, you need to provide accessories to enhance each piece of cheese, and adorn the plate in question.

Your options are as diverse and interesting as the cheese market itself.

  • Bread: you need carbs with cheese, because this plate isn’t about being coy. Nonetheless, this is the simplest addition to any cheese plate.
    • Fresh baguettes (mild enough to go with everything without overshadowing any of the cheeses)
    • Different kinds of crusty bread, sliced into small serving pieces
    • Crackers: they come in a variety of flavors and shapes so you can choose plain multigrain ones, flavored offerings like rosemary, or super crispy-seeded options to mix with a nuttier or sweeter cheese to mix it up
  • Fruit/Vegetables: naturally, you’ll want to pick accordingly, depending on when you serve the cheese plate. Nonetheless, make sure fruit offerings are perfectly ripe.
    • Artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, olives, tomatoes
    • Peaches, pears, berries, nectarines need to be perfectly ripe!
    • Apples and grapes are a safe option year-round for finding a good, sweet, addition to the cheese
  • Jams, Preserves, and Pastes: There are savory and sweet jams aplenty that make an ideal pairing to cheese + bread and ultimately elevate the experience.
    • Apple, Apricot, Blackberry, Black Currant, Fig, Huckleberry and more are all perfect jams to accompany a dessert cheese plate
    • Bacon, onion, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic, or tomato jams are all game changers on a pre-dinner cheese plate.
    • Chutney, mostarda, spicy mustards, and quince paste are ideal savory accompaniments.
  • Nuts and bolts: Nuts are a great way to enhance cheese, and look beautiful scattered on the plate.
    • Walnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, almonds
    • Marcona almonds are the best option, and are equally at home with sweet and savory options alike. Check our Trader Joes’s rosemary flavored marcona almonds for an addictive addition.
  • Dried Fruits: since it’s difficult to find fresh fruit that’s perfectly ripe year-round (that’s how nature works folks), dried fruit makes a perfect accompaniment.
    • Raisins, dates, apricots, cherries, apples
    • Medjool dates are a game changer
  • Honey and sweets:  Dessert isn’t the same without sugar
    • Different kinds of honey means different flavors on a cheese plate
      • Clover honey + blue cheese
      • Chestnut and Buckwheat honey + grueyere or Parmigiano reggiano
      • Orange blossom honey + soft cheeses, like brie or goats milk
    • Caramel mixed with salty or nutty cheeses (Or anything, really) is exceptional. Pairing it with an aged gouda will blow your mind.
  • Cured Meats: Ideal for a pre-dinner plate, different meats can add a nice touch to a cheese arrangement
    • Prosciutto, salamis, chorizo

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Phase Five: Finishing Touches

Congratulations on nearly completing one of the best things you’ll ever eat. There are just a few important suggestions to remember when you’re making the final move from jumbled ingredients to full presentation.

  • Remove the cheese from the fridge at least an hour before serving. Cheese shouldn’t be served cold and hard, it needs time to soften and breathe prior to eating.
  • Spread the spread: make sure you’re using a plate or board big enough to sufficiently accommodate all the cheese and accessories. If your cheese is arranged too close together, people will inevitably bump into other cheeses while slicing.
  • Keep pungent cheeses farther apart from other pungent cheeses
  • Provide a knife for each individual piece of cheese
  • Put accompaniments intended for specific cheeses next to that cheese
  • Label the cheese! People deserve to know what you’re serving them, so make sure each cheese (and any information about it you’d care to share) is clearly labeled.
  • White wine pairs best with cheese. The acidity doesn’t overpower the cheese like a red wine does. A great cheese can elevate an OK wine, but a crappy cheese can ruin a great bottle of wine. Invest wisely!

Once you find the good stuff, I doubt you’ll ever go back to your pseudo-cheese ways. Cheese plates are a gateway drug into a whole new way of cheesing, steeped in history and culture from all over the world!

PS: If you’re ever in Philadelphia, visit a cheese expert’s restaurant and shop at Taulula’s Daily. Aimee Olexy is a cheese genius. Cheenius?

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Tea Talk: Everything you think you don’t need to know (but you do)

I’ve always enjoyed high tea more than a regular cup at home. At first read, that isn’t a particularly surprising statement. High tea means picking a pot of your own tea from dozens of exotic choices. That special tea is then served to you in the prettiest china (usually in an equally beautiful venue). High tea is also comes with an array of aesthetically-and-palate-pleasing sandwiches, petite pastries, and perfect scones (with clotted cream and jams). The combination of food, tea, and finery makes the experience an entirely civilized way to spend an afternoon.

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high tea time at the Rittenhouse

                                       Cheesing for high tea, and all the trimmings, at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia

However, tea is so much more than a special occasion outing or a cup bland sympathy when you’re feeling under the weather. A little knowledge can help replicate the decadence of high tea at home or on the go, boiled down to the basics: the tea itself.

Tea tradition spans cultures, continents, and centuries: ranging from the Shang dynasty in the third century to modern day drinkers worldwide. From China to Portugal, Great Britain to India, tea remains a stalwart standby for medicinal uses and social gatherings alike.

Tea Travels

Tea originated, unsurprisingly, in China as a medicinal drink. Portugese priests and merchants were introduced to the beverage in the 16th century while on trading trips and missionaries. After its introduction to Europe, tea soared to popularity in Britain by the 17th century. As the British Empire began to encircle the globe, tea became part of colonization. The Brits introduced tea into India while colonizing the country, and the product eventually gained converts throughout Persia and the Middle East via the Silk Road. The combination of trade and colonization brought tea to the world as a whole, with each culture adapting and engaging with the beverage in a unique way. The result is an impressive variety of tea cultures, specific to each population that reflects its peoples’ history and customs.

Tea Science

Tea, from plant to drink, is a long process. It takes about three years for a tea plant to mature enough to harvest. The best quality tea plants are cultivated at high elevations because studies show the leaves acquire a better flavor while grown at a slower pace. There are, naturally, many strains of plants grown for different teas, but the size of the leaf is the basic criterion for classification (small, medium, and large). After the leaves are picked, they are wilted and oxidized or immediately dried. An enzymatic oxidation caused by the plant’s enzymes makes the tea darker in color. This process is halted at a particular stage (depending on what tea) by heating the leaves to deactivate the enzymes.

Nearly all tea (in bags and loose leaf tea) is a blend of some type. Teas are mixed with other teas to obtain a better taste and also, a higher price.

There’s more to tea than just taste though, and there is a reason tea’s history began with medicinal intent. Tea contains catechins, or Flavan-3-ols. Catechins reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes. Catechins combined with habitual exercise also delay some forms of aging, reduce cancerous biomarkers, keep arteries flexible, increase small vesssel circulation, and reduce blood pressure. Additionally, tea contains vitamin, flavonoids and caffeine. Ample evidence suggests that green and black teas protect against cancer and help manage weight by boosting metabolic rates.

Green and white teas have the highest concentration of catechins thanks to their particular oxidative preparations. Tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which modulates caffeine’s psychoactive effects and creates the “umami” taste many associate with tea.

Healthful Tea Options: 

There’s already plenty of evidence that states black and green teas are exceptionally good for you (and great for cutting down the coffee drinking…) but there are more than just the basics when it comes to picking a healthy tea option. Just like reaching into a medicine cabinet to find the right fix for a head or stomach ache, knowing which tea does what can help relieve some common problems.

  • Peppermint tea: relieves bloating, muscle spasms, and nausea. Not ideal for people suffering from heartburn.
  • Ginger tea: a digestive aid proven to curb nausea, vomitting, or upset stomach due to motion sickness. Boost any tea by adding a piece of simmered ginger (on the stove for 10 minutes or so to soften) to your strainer after brewing.
  • Chamomile tea: a calming and sedative tea that is helpful for insomnia and post-meal digestion. This tea also helps with coughs, bronchitis, a cold, and fevers.
  • Rooibos tea: high in vitamin C and minerals, it can help with aging and is super high in antioxidants. As an added bonus, it helps with common skin concerns.
  • Rosehip tea: rosehips are one of the best plant sources of vitamin C making this tea great for your immune system, skin, and overall tissue health.
  • White tea: the least processed tea, named for the fine white fuzz present on the young tea leaf buds when picked, it has a similar, if not greater, antioxidant content as green tea making it a good option for overall health.
  • Oolong Tea: Similar to black tea but with a richer taste thanks to a shorter fermentation period, it may aid in weight loss and increasing metabolic rates.

Making Tea

There are six basic types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented. Regardless of what type you choose to brew, realize that you’re indulging in the second-most consumed beverage on Earth, after water.

Tea_in_different_grade_of_fermentation

The color variation is a result of different fermentation processes. From left to right: green, yellow, oolong, and black.

At first glance, you might think that brewing tea is just a simple process of adding hot water to tea, waiting, and adding any sweetners. But like anything else in life, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Behold: tea brewing beyond the basics

The strength of tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea, the temperature, and the steep time vary from tea to tea. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, like green and white teas, are best brewed at lower temperatures while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temps. The higher tempreatures are required to extract the large, complex, and flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea. Boiling also reduces the dissolved oxygen content of water which reacts with phenolic molecules to turn them brown and reduce the potency of antioxidants.

Type                     Water Temperature                     Steep Time

White Tea              65-70°C 149-158°F                      1-2 min

Yellow Tea             70-75°C/158-167°F                      1-2 min

Green Tea             75-80°C/167-176°F                       1-2min

Oolong tea             80-85°C/176-185°F                       2-3 min

Black Tea               99°C/210°F                                   2-3 min

Pu’er Tea                95-100°C/203-212°F                     Any

After you’ve brewed your tea, according to the directions, there are options for what you might add to enhance the flavor and/or health benefits of your tea.

5-teas

Additives

Different cultures add different things to their tea.  For example,adding milk to tea started in Europe around 1680 and some cultures, where dairy products are consumed, still add milk to their tea today.

  • The Indian masala chai and some British blends suggest adding milk. These are hearty black teas that can still be tasted clearly though the milk, which is added to neutralize any remaining tannins and reduce the acidity.
    • Some insist that milk needs to be added after brewing the tea, so that the correct temperature is maintained to sufficiently steep the leaves and dissolve the sugar (if using) as well.
    • Fun fact: Historically, the order of tea-preparation was indicative of class because only the wealthy could afford high-quality porcelain that would be able to survive the high heat of brewing tea without milk to reduce the temperature.
  • Some teas in Italy, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, are served with lemon juice

Tea cultures globally are more creative than just lemon juice and milk though…you can and should consider adding the following:

  • Chinese jasmine tea includes jasmine oil and/or flowers.
  • Indian masala includes spices like star anise, ginger, green cardamom pods, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg and cloves.
  • Sometimes chilli, coriander and rose petals are included.
  • The British standard, Earl Grey, includes bergamot oil to achieve its taste.
  • In eastern India, lemon tea is immensely popular and is simply lemon juice, hot water and sugar. Masala lemon tea is cumin, seed powder, lemon juice, black salt, and sugar creating a tangy and slightly spicy taste.
  • Adding ginger when brewing tea is a popular technique in Sri Lanka, where cinnamon is also added to sweeten the aroma.
  • The options are essentially limitless, with additives like sugar, liquid or solid honey, agave nectar, fruit jams, mint, herbs, and spices. Additionally, some alcohols are added to tea including whisky, brandy, and apertifs.
  • Complicating matters further, high-altitude pouring is a practice from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) where pouring from different heights can result in different degrees of aeration and thus different flavors. More likely though, this technique cools the beverage so it can be immediately consumed.

The Great Debate: Bag vs. Loose

Up until recently, tea was always loose. It wasn’t until the 20th century that tea leaves came packed into small envelopes. This style of manufacturing/brewing became extremely popular during WWII, when rationing tea was made easier by the use of tea bags. The ease and convenience  makes bagged tea consistently popular today.

However, there are significant drawbacks that come with convenience, as is often the case.

  • The tea used in bags is usually “fannings” or the dust of tea: the waste product produced from sorting the higher-quality loose leaf tea. However, some high-quality specialty teas are available in bag form.
  • Tea aficionados insist that tea bags provide an inferior taste and experience. The paper from the bag may also be tasted, detracting the tea’s own flavor.
  • Dried tea loses its flavor quickly when exposed to air. Since most bagged teas contain leaves broken into smaller pieces, there’s a greater surface area-to-volume ratio on the leaves which means more exposure to air and staler tea.
  • Conversely, loose leaf tea is almost always left in larger pieces, if not entirely intact.
  • Breaking up the leaves for bags extracts and removes flavored oils.
  • The small size of the bag doesn’t allow the leaves to diffuse and steep properly because the tea can’t expand during the brewing process.

Verdict: Loose leaf tea is what brings the decadence of high tea home, and with a few adjustments, can be as easy as using bagged tea.

Now that I’ve sufficiently scratched the surface of tea’s history, production, and preparation, it’s high time to talk accessories and purchasing.

Loose leaf tea is widely available (perks of being the #2 beverage worldwide). If you’re starting the hunt for it though, larger companies like the Republic of Tea and Teavana offer good loose leaf varieties internationally. For a more personal, informative, special, and quaint experience though, seek out smaller and independently owned stores near you.

Tea Time!
                         

As you make the upgrade from bagged to loose leaf, you’ll need a strainer to effectively brew all those loose leaves of tea! The choices above range from whimsy (a literal leaf, a robot, a mini tea-pot, and a shark fin) to practical: the floatea and the mesh travel one. I own both the floatea and mesh options because they make it easy to take tea on the go! Additionally….teapots and cups come in a never-ending supply of shapes, styles, colors, prints, sizes, and materials!

So enjoy the stretches between high tea with your own loose leaf tea at home, on the road, or at work. The best cup of tea still tastes amazing regardless what cup you use and it still does the body good.