New Year’s Eve In: An Appetizer Menu

New Year’s Eve In: An Appetizer Menu

Check on your hypochondriac friends. We are not okay.

Omicron’s symptoms are pretty close to that of allergies, which I suffer from year round, and therefore I think he’s a jerk. I had a COVID-19 test scheduled for this morning, a just in case measure before I see my elderly parents and also family visiting from California. I’ve had a gremlin lodged up my right nostril since the day after Christmas, and while he’s likely just an angry bout of allergies, I keep reading about people with mild cases of the sniffles and positive COVID tests. (I really need to get off Twitter. It’s worse than WebMD.)

I’ve taken a handful of COVID tests, both before and after vaccination, and they’ve all been negative. There’s no reason this time should be different, but I am still worried about dismissing a real threat and infecting my family, so I pushed down all my fears of being the girl who cried COVID and sought available testing. After striking out with COVID testing at local CVS pharmacies and the local urgent care, I found a testing site near my old neighborhood in Canton. It had terrible reviews, but it was listed on a government website, so I figured it was legit and probably just had stressed out staff with a terrible bedside (carside?) manner. I was able to snag an 11 am appointment with an ease that should have alarmed me. I answered a view questions, then had a time confirmed, and then did a pre registration that involved adding my insurance card and drivers license numbers in both image and text box forms.

After driving nearly 20 minutes and getting lost in the most generic office building area (I really should not have been that lost. It was a 2 minute drive from my old house and directly behind my cat’s veterinarian office), I found the office/testing site. It had a handwritten sign on the door saying it was out of tests and to try their other location in another city. Suddenly the 1-star review of “They weren’t even there” I had read online made more sense. I started trying to work out if any attempt at identity theft can be accomplished with one’s driver’s license number and insurance policy number (no idea), but then met another couple who also registered online and had been to this site before. Apparently it is a legit testing site (they’d been here on an occasion when there were tests) and they had been trying to find testing since Christmas Eve, and this was common elsewhere.

So I’m tired. And sniffly. And torn about whether to go to my parents’ house.

It’s probably allergies, right?

Anyway, back to the post topic, which is New Year’s Eve appetizer recipes.

As there is a very infectious disease raging, may I make a suggestion for your New Years Eve? Stay home. Have a dance party with your significant other, your kids, or your dog or cat. (If you have a dance party with your dog, please, please get this on video and send it to me.) Open a bottle of bubbly, whether it’s fancy champagne, cava, prosecco, or a non-alcoholic bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling cider (the best non-alcoholic bubbly in my opinion) and all make all of the appetizers.

New Years Eve Menu:

  • Air Fried Artichoke Hearts with Roasted Garlic Aioli
  • Everything Peppers
  • Ginger Lime Shrimp

Air Fried Artichoke Hearts with Spiced Aioli

In full disclosure, I got the idea to air fry frozen artichoke hearts on a Trader Joe’s Facebook group from a lovely woman named Maria, so only the aioli is my own recipe. Since grocery availability varies by region, I feel I should add that Trader Joe’s is the only place I have reliably found frozen artichoke hearts.

  • 12 oz bag frozen artichoke hearts
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Spiced Aioli

  • 5 oz plain Greek nonfat yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons mayo
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  1. Mix together aioli ingredients. Set aside.
  2. Toss artichoke hearts (do not thaw) with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Place in a single layer in your air fryer.  
  4. Set air fryer to 400° and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until crispy and golden.

Variation: You could also bread the artichoke hearts. I prefer to keep these simple and unbreaded.

Everything Peppers

  • Sweet mini peppers
  • Whipped cream cheese (or regular cream cheese softened)
  • Everything but the Bagel seasoning
  1. Wash, halve, and deseed mini peppers.
  2. Fill mini pepper halves with cream cheese.
  3. Top with Everything seasoning.

Variations: If you don’t like cream cheese, try filling the peppers with either guacamole or hummus and some diced veggies. If peppers aren’t your favorite, top cucumber slices with cream cheese and Everything seasoning.

Ginger Lime Shrimp

Marinade:

  • 1/2 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • Juice of 1 lime (approx. 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 16 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined
  1. Mix together all ingredients for marinade in a large bowl.
  2. Add shrimp. Let marinate in the refrigerator for anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours.
  3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  4. Drain shrimp and place in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  5. Bake shrimp for 6 to 8 minutes.
  6. Place on toothpicks or skewers for easier serving.

Variation: For a spicier version, add either red pepper flakes or a deseeded hot pepper (jalapeno or serrano) to the marinade.

Waiting for Saint Nick: An Amaretto Cocoa

Waiting for Saint Nick: An Amaretto Cocoa

What is your favorite Christmas movie? I always feel like I am supposed to respond with a classic like It’s A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, or even A Christmas Story. I like all of those, but none of them are my favorite.

The Family Stone. 100%. The storyline is Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) is meeting the parents for the first time. Her boyfriend, Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), has a large family, the youngest of which, Amy (Rachel McAdams), hates Meredith. Meredith is classy and career driven, but she babbles when nervous and frequently puts her foot in her mouth. As Meredith melts into a puddle of anxiety, the other Stone members deal with their own issues, which range from breast cancer to adoption to encountering high school sweethearts. I love this movie because I am drawn to kooky family drama and holiday misadventures. The characters are multi-faceted and played by amazing actors. Diane Keaton is fabulous as the Stone family matriarch.

Whatever your favorite Christmas movie is, this is the hot chocolate you want in your hand as you watch it. Not to brag, but it’s kind of perfect. I initially bought amaretto to make a previous recipe for this blog, but I have quickly learned that amaretto is hot chocolate’s best friend (not marshmallows as previously assumed).

Waiting for Saint Nick

  • 1.5 cups milk (dairy or non-dairy)
  • 1 serving dark hot cocoa mix
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Nutella
  • 1 ounce amaretto
  • 1 ounce cognac
  • Topping ideas: whipped cream, holiday sprinkles, chocolate shavings
  1. Heat milk over the stovetop. Do not boil.
  2. Reduce heat to low and whisk in cocoa mix. Once the cocoa mix is incorporated, add Nutella and whisk until thoroughly blended.
  3. In each mug, add 1 ounce cognac and 1 ounce amaretto. Pour in cocoa.
  4. Add preferred toppings and enjoy!

Movie pairing: The Family Stone
Book pairing: Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand

Witchy Poached Pears

Witchy Poached Pears

Poached pears are easy, delicious, very seasonal, and they make your house smell like heaven. I don’t know if Yankee Candle makes a poached pear candle but they really should. 

If you are a Michigander, I have a shortcut for you: Poach your pears with Leelanau Cellars Witches Brew, which is a spiced red wine. If you have a Costco membership, you can buy an oversized bottle for $9.99, although if you buy the oversized bottle, you will want to use 3 cups for this recipe, not the full bottle. Out of state with no access to Witches Brew? No problem. Just add either mulling spices or two chai tea bags to the red wine of your choice.

I strongly recommend making your poached pears sundae bar style. Everyone likes to customize their own dessert, and poached pears are quite versatile.  My sundae bar suggestions can be found directly below the recipe.

  • 4 to 6 pears, peeled
  • 1 bottle of Witches Brew (or other red wine with either mulling spices or 2 chai tea bags)
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Combine the wine, maple syrup and vanilla in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to medium and add pears.
  3. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
  4. Remove pears and set aside.
  5. Turn the heat up on the remaining wine sauce.
  6. Reduce the wine sauce to half.
  7. Serve pears with wine sauce and your preferred toppings.

Sundae Bar Toppings:

  • Ice cream. Suggested flavors include vanilla, caramel, and cheesecake
  • Caramel sauce
  • Chocolate sauce
  • Nuts 
  • Chocolate chips
  • Crushed toffee

Pictured is my poached pear with sea caramel Halo Top, chocolate chips, and crushed praline pecans.

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Seventeen years ago in the tiny Lousiana island of La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer. They call themselves the Summer Children.

La Cachette is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. In addition to the approximately 100 human residents, La Cachette is home to venomous snakes and a 13-foot alligator named Willie Nelson.

Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before, but she looks forward to her high school graduation, as it will allow to move back to La Cachette full time to spend time with her closest friends, the other Summer Children, especially her best friend, Elora. However, a few months before Grey returns to La Cachette for her seventeenth summer, Elora goes missing.

When Grey returns to the island, she is determined to learn what happened to Elora, but no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.

Ginny Myers Sain’s debut novel is the perfect read for spooky season. I’ve read several books over the last month trying to find the perfect October book to review, discarding many along the way, and this was the only one that wowed me. The appeal is due to several factors: the rich Southern gothic tradition this is part of, the appeal of island fiction, and of course, a well-crafted mystery.

Dark and Shallow Lies is a very atmospheric novel. I have had a soft spot for gothic fiction set in Louisiana ever since my teenage years of binging Anne Rice, and this novel makes the most of its setting. With the very first pages, the reader is given the impression of a wild and dangerous world, endless humidity, and secrets. Beauty and the grotesque live side-by-side in La Cachette. Part of La Cachette’s mystique is that it is an island. Novels set on islands from And Then There None to Lord of the Flies create tension simply through isolation, as each islander lives only at the mercy of the other islanders, with the outside world feeling almost unreal.

The mystery is intricately plotted with many twists and turns along the way. As this is a YA mystery, there are no characters so drunk that they become accidentally unreliable narrators, which is a bonus. (If you have read a lot of mysteries/thrillers marketed for adults, you have stumbled into many an alcoholic narrator along the way.) I’m assuming the missing girl plot gives this away, but in case it doesn’t, this book is definitely for the older end of the YA spectrum, not for your 10-year-old niece. There is violence, drinking, drug references, etc. It’s ideal for teens beginning to age out of YA and for adults. I’m planning to buy a copy for my 17-year-old stepdaughter who reads mostly adult fiction these days.

As La Cachette is an easy day trip from New Orleans, the ideal book club menu would contain New Orleans specialities. This month’s book club menu consists of hot Cajun shrimp dip and muffuletta crostini.

Hot Cajun Shrimp Dip

This is a mash up of three recipes I found, plus it’s slightly lightened up with extra veggies, Greek yogurt in place of mayo, and reduced fat cream cheese. Given that this recipe is pretty much cheese upon cheese, my attempts at lightening it up are probably the equivalent of having Diet Coke with a Big Mac meal to save calories. But I feel like a Louisiana grandmother would still judge me for trying to lighten it up at all. My hypothetical grandma is known as Miss Dominique in her neighborhood and she tells me that when your time is up, your time is up, so just eat the cheese.

This dip can be served with crackers and bread. If you have club members who can’t or don’t eat carbs and/or gluten, raw veggies, plantain chips, and Nut Thins are also good dippers.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup celery
  • ½ sweet onion, chopped
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb shrimp chopped
  • 1 tb creole seasoning
  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese (⅓ reduced fat)
  • 5 oz nonfat Greek plain yogurt
  • ½ lemon juiced
  • 1 cup pepper jack shredded
  • 1 cup cheddar shredded, divided
  • ¼ cup parmesan shredded
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. If you don’t own an oven-safe skillet, spray a medium casserole dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
  3. Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add the red bell pepper, celery and sweet onion and cook until the onions are translucent.
  5. Add the chopped shrimp, garlic, and creole seasoning and cook until the shrimp are opaque.
  6. Stir in cream cheese, Greek yogurt, scallions, and lemon juice.
  7. Add in the 1 cup of pepper jack and ½ cup of cheddar one handful at a time. Once the cheese is evenly incorporated, add the next handful.
  8. If your skillet is not oven proof, pour the shrimp and cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
  9. Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ¼ cup of parmesan.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes and then broil for an additional two minutes.

Muffuletta Crostini

Muffuletta sandwiches are an Italian contribution to New Orleans cuisine. Full of ham, cheese, and olives, they are the type of sandwich that gets better as it sits. While I don’t doubt the transformative power of marination, I opted to transform it into a crostini here because appetizers are more fun for book club meetings. Plus it gives us an excuse to put the cheese under the broiler because melted cheese > room temperature cheese.

If there are dietary restrictions, just customize your muffuletta. For vegetarians, omit the meat for an olive melt. For lactose intolerant friends, omit the cheese. For keto friends, omit the bread and do a meat, cheese, olive roll up.

  • A baguette
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic powder
  • Thin sliced ham
  • Salami
  • Provolone cheese slices
  • ¾ cup mixed and sliced olives (I used a castelvetrano/kalamata blend)
  • 1/2 cup mild giardiniera
  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Slice baguette and brush each slice with olive oil and top with a light dusting of garlic powder.
  3. Arrange sliced bread on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sliced olives and giardiniera.
  4. Once you remove the toasted baguette slices from the oven, top each bread slice with a spoon of the olive/giandiniera mixture, a slice of ham, a slice of salami, half a slice of provolone.
  5. Press down on each crostini slightly to smush the olive mixture into the toasted bread.
  6. Turn on broiler. Broil your crostini for 1 to 2 minutes.

Enjoy!

Arugula radicchio salad with pear and salami

Arugula radicchio salad with pear and salami

Sometimes you just have a lot of salami and pears in your house due to your recent charcuterie photo shoot. I fully realize this is uniquely a Me Problem, but for a moment, let’s pretend that this is an universal experience and you too end up in the kitchen on a random Tuesday saying, “Salami, pear. Pear . . . salami?” as you ponder possibilities for sandwiches and salads. (Thanks for doing this exercise with me. I now feel seen.)

I knew that salami is delicious with arugula and radicchio, so the pear was the wild card pearing here (sorry, not sorry). Add some goat cheese crumbles, and it’s a perfect fall salad. If goat cheese is not your favorite, feta or parmesan would also work here.

Hope you enjoy!

For 4 entree salads:

  • 1 head radicchio, chopped
  • 4 cups baby arugula
  • 4 ounces salami, sliced
  • 2 pears, sliced
  • 4 ounces goat cheese crumbles
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Assemble radicchio, arugula, salami, and pear slices in 4 bowls. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Top each salad with goat cheese crumbles and serve.

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

As this memoir is a celebration of women in the food industry, this image indirectly features a woman in food. The vegan shortbread cookies are from Bohemian Bakeshop, a Detroit business owned by Jessica Chaney.

When Hannah Howard started her first restaurant job as a host, she fell in love with the food industry. Food had been a significant part of Howard’s childhood, but it quickly became her calling, and while she found success in her chosen industry, her obsession with food had a darker side: disordered eating had made food into a thing she both loved and feared. At the time of writing Plenty, Howard is a former restaurant manager turned food writer, and she has left binge eating behind but still struggles with body image. In this memoir, Howard not only tells her story, but that of women in the food industry. She writes about chefs, culinary teachers, entrepreneurs, and even a barge captain working in food-related tourism. Plenty addresses being a woman in a male-dominated environment, struggling with body image while working in food, and choosing motherhood while also chasing career goals.

While Plenty examines all the barriers that are unique to women in the industry, it is ultimately a celebration of food, family, female friendships, and chasing dreams. The women she profiles are interesting and diverse, and all of them are people she befriended while at work. She writes about a young chef just starting out, a chef who tired of the sexual harassment in the industry and transitioned to teaching, and woman who became a barge captain in the Bordeaux region, first by default and then by choice. I think the most inspiring story to me was that of Eat Offbeat, an organization which employs refugee women with no previous professional cooking experience but who are talented home cooks willing to learn to cook for a living. Howard also addresses what happened to all of these women during the pandemic, as they adapted to the changing industry.

I think Plenty would be enjoyed by foodies and by women who work in male-dominated industries. It would also be a natural book club selection, because it lends itself to sharing stories about work, family food traditions, and motherhood. If either eating disorders or miscarriage are triggering topics for you, you might want to pass on this. Miscarriage is part of my own story, so I may have spent that part of the book curled up with a box of tissues, crying for both her and me. No regrets for reading it, but I did want to offer a warning to anyone who may need it.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Plenty on Amazon First Reads. It did not affect my review as I only review books I recommend.

Hannah Howard describes herself as a “writer and cheese maven” on her website, so the only acceptable food offering for a book club is a cheese plate or a charcuterie board. September is a great time to add some fall flavors into the mix, such as figs, pears, apples, and grapes.

Recommended book club menu:

Charcuterie board: One soft cheese and one firm cheese (brie and cheddar pictured), pear slices, figs, sugared prosecco grapes (recipe below), roasted grapes (pictured on brie, recipe also below), baguette, crackers, macarons

Cocktail: French 75 (recipe below)

Mocktail: Apple ginger mocktail (recipe below)

Sugared Prosecco Grapes

The first thing you need to know is that you’ll be draining most of the prosecco, so don’t use a fancy bottle. A $5 bottle works just fine here. Also note my lack of measurements here. You don’t need any terribly specific ratios here as the grapes are merely soaking in the wine. If you are preparing this for a crowd (a couple lbs. of grapes), then you’ll want to use a full bottle of wine. If you are using a small bunch of grapes like I did, you’ll use a third of a bottle at most.

  • White grapes
  • Prosecco
  • Granulated sugar
  1. Place grapes in a bowl. Pour enough prosecco over to cover the grapes completely.
  2. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or several hours).
  3. Drain grapes, but don’t dry completely.
  4. Pour sugar into a baking sheet. Add grapes and roll in sugar until coated evenly.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Variation: Prosecco grapes can also be frozen. I didn’t do so here, as this is a fall-themed board, but frozen grapes would be delicious for an outdoor summer party. If you freeze them, just make sure to do so in a single layer so they don’t stick together like a sparkling bundle of disappointment.

Roasted Grapes

Grapes may be a fruit we are accustomed to eating only raw, but that’s a sad underestimation of this delicious fruit.

  • Red grapes
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Rosemary (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Toss grapes on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary (if using).
  3. Bake for 25 minutes.

French 75

First things first. Do you have simple syrup in your house? If you don’t, it’s easy enough to make at home, but you need to make it a bit in advance as it needs to cool before you use it. I’d recommend making it while your grapes are roasting. Just add equal amounts sugar and water in a small saucepan. (I used 1/3 cup of each.) Heat on low and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Let it cool.

Per glass:

  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces sparkling wine
  1. Combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Shake and then strain into a champagne glass.
  3. Top with sparkling wine.

Apple Ginger Mocktail

  • Apple cider (I used honeycrisp)
  • Ginger ale
  1. Fill a glass with ice halfway with cider.
  2. Add the same amount of ginger ale.
  3. Enjoy!

Artichoke Spinach Orzo with Shrimp and Feta

Artichoke Spinach Orzo with Shrimp and Feta

I developed my love of artichoke hearts in the usual fashion: I ate my body weight in artichoke spinach dip at chain restaurants in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. I’m not sure if artichoke spinach dip is technically considered a retro food, but to me, it’s as retro as low rise jeans and dial up internet. 

Retro or not, I would happily demolish it if you put it in front of me, but at 42, I’m probably too old to eat chips and dip for dinner. Eating artichokes in pasta for dinner, however, is perfectly respectable. Consider this a fresher, more grown up take on artichoke hearts and spinach. The artichokes really are the star here as they melt perfectly into the orzo, and the feta crumbles add just the right amount of creaminess.

It’s delicious and my terrible photos don’t do it justice. I’m currently studying food photography tutorials, so my photos will no longer look like they came out of a cookbook from the eighties, but clearly I’m not there yet. Amazon just delivered a ring light and tripod, so that’s one step closer to better pictures.

  • 8 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup orzo
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • ⅓ cup white wine
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 8 oz artichoke hearts, diced
  • 5 oz baby spinach
  • Zest and juice of ½ a lemon
  • Feta crumbles
  • 1 tablespoon dill
  • 3 tablespoons  parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet. When melted, add shrimp and salt. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
  2. Transfer shrimp to a plate and clean out the skillet with a paper towel.
  3. Heat remaining tablespoon of butter and olive oil in skillet. Add orzo and garlic and saute until just lightly browned. 
  4. Add wine to orzo. Once it is absorbed, add the broth, salt, and the artichokes, stirring occasionally.
  5. When the broth is nearly absorbed, add in the spinach one handful at a time, adding the next handful when the previous one is wilted. 
  6. Add shrimp, lemon juice and zest, dill, parsley, and black pepper.
  7. Taste to see if it requires more salt, lemon, or broth. Adjust, if needed.
  8. Serve with feta crumbles.

Vegetarian variation: In place of the shrimp, use roasted chickpeas. Preheat oven to 400. Toss a drained can of chickpeas with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes. While the chickpeas are roasting, start making your orzo, beginning with step 3.

Wine pairing: Sauvignon Blanc. I suspect that Assyrtiko (a Greek white that pairs well with seafood and feta) would also be a great match for this, but given that I that I didn’t have a bottle on hand to test, I can only confidently say it goes well with a Sauvignon Blanc. Mine was a Pouilly-Fumé.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner: review and book club menu

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner: review and book club menu

1791:  Nella is the type of apothecary that you only hear about through word of mouth. For years, women have come to her to buy poisons to use on abusive husbands and other dangerous males. One day, twelve-year-old Eliza Fanning comes to Nella’s shop on an errand to collect a poison for her mistress’s husband. Nella expects to never see Eliza again after selling her a poison to add to her master’s morning egg, but through a series of circumstances, the young girl soon becomes part of her life.

Present day: Caroline’s trip to London was supposed to be a romantic tenth anniversary trip. Instead, she is traveling alone after learning of her husband’s infidelity. When she is invited to go mudlarking (wading in the Thames in search of historic treasure) by a history enthusiast, she finds a mysterious bottle. As she begins researching, she is fascinated by reports of a mysterious apothecary shop that once sold unusual concoctions to women.

Penner’s debut novel is deliciously readable. I loved Nella’s shop “buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London” where no man would find it. I loved the late 18th century setting and watching Nella and Eliza’s relationship as it evolved from an act of hospitality (a cup of tea) to a mentor relationship.

As is generally the case with books with dual timelines, I preferred the historical story to the modern story. But Caroline is relatable. She’s a woman questioning the sacrifices she’s made in her life, with her husband’s betrayal leading her to pursue what she truly wants for the first time in years. For all of the women coming out of the pandemic, wondering if their own choices were the right ones, Caroline’s struggles will strike a chord.

The Lost Apothecary would be an excellent book club choice. And a fabulous book requires equally fabulous snacks. Here is my recommended menu:

  • Deviled eggs in honor of Eliza’s famous poison breakfast
  • Carrot and celery sticks with your favorite dip 
  • Cranberry brie bites (recipe below)
  • Nutella dip with fruit, cookies, and pretzel rods (recipe below)

For a dry meeting:

Coffee and two types of tea. If you have teapots and strainers to make loose leaf tea, all the better. Working with loose leaf tea will make you feel like Nella, mixing up a concoction that could either heal or poison. (Please don’t poison your book club. Good book clubs are worth their weight in gold.)

For a book club that serves alcohol:

The most appropriate wine to pair with The Lost Apothecary would be a bold and flavorful red. My recommendation is Bodega Garzon Tannat. This award winning Uruguayan wine is easy to find in well stocked supermarkets and its deep purple color is as beautiful and mysterious as the book cover.     

Cranberry Brie Bites:

I have only been to England once and that was in 2009. I had a list of foods to try there such as true English fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding. But curiously, one of the foods I associate with my trip is cranberry Brie sandwiches. It’s such a luxury cheese in the U.S., so I was surprised to learn that it was a common lunch item there, almost like PB&J is here, but I was perfectly happy to enjoy a Brie sandwich and black tea for lunch whenever I had the opportunity. Sandwiches can be a bit heavy for a book club choice, so bite size pastries might be more appropriate here.

If cranberry reminds you too much of the holidays, try blueberry preserves or the jam of your choice.

  • 1 package crescent roll dough
  • 8 oz Brie, cut into 24 small pieces
  • ½ cup cranberry sauce
  • ½ tablespoon Grand Marnier (optional, but recommended)
  • Springs of rosemary for garnish (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Roll out crescent roll dough (I used parchment paper so I wouldn’t need to clean my counter before and after) and cut into 24 squares.
  3. Mix together ½ cup cranberry sauce and ½ tablespoon of Grand Marnier. If you don’t have Grand Marnier, it’s not essential, but the orange flavor complements the cranberries.
  4. Place one square into each cup of a mini muffin pan and top with a small piece of Brie and a small amount of the cranberry mixture.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes.
  6. Garnish with a rosemary sprig.

Nutella Dip:

I don’t remember how I started making this dip, but I used to make this all the time when my stepdaughters were little. It’s easy and addictive and goes well with apple slices or fresh baguette slices. It is also an ideal frosting for brownies. For a book club setting, I would recommend a cute dessert board with assorted fruit, cookies, and pretzels.

  • ½ cup peanut butter
  • ½ cup Nutella
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips

Microwave peanut butter in a small microwavable bowl for 30 seconds. Stir in Nutella and chocolate chips. Microwave for another 20 seconds. Stir and serve.

Summer Breakfast Polenta Bowls with Strawberries, Basil, and Vanilla Whipped Ricotta

Summer Breakfast Polenta Bowls with Strawberries, Basil, and Vanilla Whipped Ricotta

Some of my favorite foods are meals I have improvised when I haven’t felt like eating whatever I meal prepped, leaving me to mix together leftovers in a haphazard fashion. There was one time that I made the absolute best salad out of leftovers. I declared myself a genius and felt very smug until I learned that what I had “invented” was a variation on the Nicoise salad and people have been eating them in France forever. I was just late to the game because I am decidedly not cosmopolitan. Nicoise is still my favorite salad, even if someone else was the real inventor.

This was a similar experience, and for all I know, people could eat this every day in Italy and have a name for it. It too was created from leftovers. My original version involved a blueberry sauce, and I made it in the dead of winter. This time, it was a deliberate creation in honor of in season berries, and I added some basil to complement the Italian ingredients of polenta and ricotta.

As written, this will feed a group of 4 to 6 people for breakfast, or it can be prepared as part of a weekly meal prep for 1 person, which is what I do. 

Ingredients:

1 cup corn grits (I used Bob’s Red Mill)

10 oz full-fat ricotta cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 cups strawberries chopped

¼ cup basil chiffonade (optional, but recommended)

1 tablespoon sugar

1. Prepare polenta according to package instructions. It should make approximately 4 cups when cooked.

2. In a large mixing bowl, add ricotta cheese, vanilla, and maple syrup. Beat with an electric mixer for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Combine strawberries, basil, and sugar in a medium sized bowl.

4. This can be either served immediately, with all 3 components layered in bowls, or for meal prep, the polenta, cheese mixture, and berry mixture can be stored in the refrigerator in separate bowls.