Chatham to Medora

I’ll be the first to admit, 2020 may not have been the best year to retire if your plan was to travel extensively. And that was my plan. And even though we are still in the pandemic, it was time to start venturing outside of my small bubble.

Instead of hopping on a plane or driving for hours to get somewhere, I wanted to start exploring the area I have lived my whole life and find fun things to do. I guess my point is living in Central Illinois doesn’t have to suck! There are lots of things to do and explore, you just have to be open to it.

First stop was Chatham to hit up Sangamo Brewing for some grub. I love this place! I have never had a bad meal there, and it is just a real gem. If you love craft beer this is the place. If you love a great beer garden, this is the place. If you love great food … well, you get it. If you have not tried it I highly recommend taking the drive to Chatham to try it out. The quesadillas are sooooo goooood!

After lunch we ventured south on Route 4 to Auburn, then Route 104 to Waverly, and finally south on Route 111. Our destination was Wild Pickens Winery, which is technically between Chesterfield and Medora. It will take you about an hour to get there from Chatham. Sit back and enjoy the ride!

I had driven by Wild Pickens Winery several times coming home from St. Louis but had never stopped, even though I was very intrigued. The winery is located in the country, and it is a really pretty setting. I would usually be driving by on a Sunday, and it always looked like they had a huge crowd. We were visiting on a Thursday so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. They have a big dining room and a huge outside area. They make their own wine, but they also serve other wines as well, as well as beer. As we were leaving, Todd, the owner, came out to introduce himself. What a nice guy! He’s living the dream right now, so go out and support him! They have music most Saturdays and Sundays, so if you go, get there early.

This is Tim, not Todd!

We decided to head north on Route 111 and stop at Vixen Hill Winery in Palmyra. Vixen Hill Winery is located one mile off of Route 111 on Palmyra Road. It will take you about a half an hour to get there from Wild Pickens Winery.

I have been to Vixen Hill Winery a couple of times … very nice people own and work at the winery, which makes it easy to come back! They make their own wine there, and we shared a bottle out on the patio. Since it was a Thursday we had the place to ourselves. They usually have music on the weekends. Another great place that is not very far from Springfield.

We headed back towards Auburn to stop at a couple of places that I love – Bewitching Botanicals and Slauterhouse Brewery. If you have not been to Bewitching Botanicals – go there! The owner makes a lot of the products herself – face soaps, body polishes, shampoos, conditioners, bath bombs, etc. Way too many to list here! All made from natural, sustainable ingredients. The rest of the store is stocked with tons of unique products – let me just say you have to go see it! Go, go, go!

After shopping we met the guys down at Slauterhouse Brewery. It is located in a former meatpacking plant, hence the name (very clever). The beer is fanatastic – soooo good. The very nice people working behind the bar will help you decide what to order, or you can order a flight. Very cute patio set-up, and they usually have music on the weekends.

After this, we headed back to Chatham and Springfield – but what a fun day with great company! More fun local trips coming!

No Reservations About Rao’s Restaurant

My midwestern family has a connection to the famous Rao’s Restaurant in New York City. Not a strong enough relationship to ever get a reservation mind you, but it is a good story. My mom was adopted as a baby, and in the course of discovering who her father was, she befriended a lady named Ruby, who was the sister of my mother’s biological mother’s husband (this is tricky). Ruby became “Aunt Ruby”, even though she is not a blood relation, but she was kind and treated my mother like family. Aunt Ruby’s daughter moved to New York City and married one of the owners of Rao’s Restaurant, and Ruby followed her there. My mom would get a big basket full of Rao’s products at Christmas, and I was introduced to their bottled marinara and pasta sauces. Seriously, if you are buying pasta sauces, these are the best!

I have two Rao’s Cookbooks, but for Cookbook Club I chose the original one – Rao’s Cookbook – Over 100 Years of Italian Cooking. There are so many good recipes in this cookbook, but my absolute favorites are the marinara sauce and Anna and Frankie’s Meatballs.

We started off the evening with a Negroni and some Italian Cheeses. The Negroni was very refreshing and a great way to kick off our Italian-themed dinner.

For starters, Dee made the Rao’s Simple Mixed Green Salad. Tasted exactly like a salad from an Italian restaurant should taste like! The fennel was really good and something I normally don’t use.

I made the main dish, and chose Braised Veal Shanks (Ossobuco) and served it with polenta. I used pork shanks as well for those in our group who do not eat veal, and both meats turned out really good, fall off the bone tender.

Nancy made the sides – Peas and Prosciutto and Sautéed Mushrooms. Confession time – I hate peas, always have. But as an “adult” I’m trying to eat vegetables I would normally pass on. These peas were great! So great I will probably even make them myself! Nancy used the La Sueur brand of canned peas, and I think this made a huge difference. And who doesn’t love mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and white wine? So easy but so delicious!

Last but definitely not least was dessert. Laura made a delicious cheesecake – a lot of cheesecakes can be dense and heavy, but this one was very light and delicious. And instead of a graham cracker crust, you use a dusting of bread crumbs. It really lets the cheesecake shine! You can serve it with fruit, but I thought it was excellent on its own.

The food and wine was delicious, and it’s always great getting together to cook. Bon Appetit!

Cioppino in the Garden

“Summertime … and the living is easy …” This is how I feel this year! So good to be out and about, socializing with friends. This is not a “typical” Cookbook Club event, but since there were two members present, and a whole slew of fabulous cooks coming, I wanted to highlight our friend Jacob’s party.

Jacob lives in the country and is widely known in our circle of friends as a fabulous cook and host. He makes entertaining look effortless, and does not seem to stress about anything! The setting was perfect for an outdoor soirée.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever had cioppino. I know I have never made it, and now I’m not sure why. Let me just say this – it. was. so. good. In fact, Jacob gave us the leftover broth when we left! Jacob used Giada’s recipe for cioppino, with a few modifications: He replaced the fish stock with two 6.5 ounce cans of clams in sauce; one 28 ounce can of fire roasted tomatoes; four cups of vegetable stock; 1/2 cup of good fish stock; and 1/3 cup of Bragg Liquid Aminos.

I brought Ina Garten’s Panzanella – this is my go-to side dish for summertime potlucks and parties. It is so good, easy, and looks really pretty.

So many good dishes to choose from – we did not go home hungry!

For dessert, Jacob made Mexican Sweet Corn Cake – this is a great summer dessert, and not too sweet! Beautifully presented, with just a dusting of powdered sugar on top.

Friends, food, and fireflies (and dogs) – what else do we really need?

Midwestern sunsets are beautiful!

An Early Father’s Day Lunch With The ‘Rents

Technically, this does not fit the format or rules for Cookbook Club. But it was another gathering with a couple of fantastic recipes that I wanted to share, and did include half of the Cookbook Club.

This year we had to move up our Father’s Day Celebration since my mom is having surgery. One of my biggest takeaways from 2020 – do not take getting together with your family for granted!

I offered to host, and to keep it simple I decided to cook hamburgers on the grill. You can’t go wrong there! My only comment on this – key to a good burger is a toasted bun. Am I right?

My sister Dee is famous for her French Onion Dip – she gets asked to bring it everywhere. And it is the most delicious and addicting thing out there – I dream about this dip! Plus it comes from Ina Garten, who is THE QUEEN of entertaining! Pan-Fried Onion Dip

Dee is also famous for her baked beans, but she routinely spills them in her car when transporting to a party. So, I decided to take on the baked beans, even though there was a lot of pressure to make them as good as hers. I found this recipe for Katie Lee’s Peach, Bourbon and Bacon Baked Beans – I won’t say this recipe was as good as Dee’s, or that my family would even agree with me, but I personally loved it! I cooked it in the oven for much longer than the recipe stated, only because I like my beans to be thicker and not soupy.

The star of the meal was the dessert – Chocolate Raspberry Pavlova by Nigella Lawson. I have been wanting to make this recipe for years, and finally had the time and opportunity to make it. Plus, I put Nigella up there in the same category as Ina – wonderful, no fail recipes, and somebody you would like to have a cocktail with 🙂 I made it with strawberries since they were in season, and thought it turned out perfect.

I hope I pass on my love of cooking to my nieces 🙂

Every gathering feels extra special this year, and I can’t wait for our next party!

A Jubilee Experience

April 9, 2021

Hallelujah! After spending most of a year locked down and masked up, the Cookbook Club is fully vaccinated, which means a celebration, or “Jubilee”. We chose Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin as we celebrated spring and our friendship.

Dee was the hostess, and we took advantage of great weather to have a cocktail in the back yard. She made the Planter’s Punch, which did actually pack quite a punch, but was very good!

I love Laura’s t-shirt from Reverie Apparel
Otis P

While we were outside drinking, Dee was inside prepping the main dish.

We started with the Wilted Mixed Greens with Bacon complements of Laura – it is a salad you will dream of having over and over! The dressing, the bacon, the blue cheese – all of it together makes a scrumptious salad. You can find the recipe here:

Our main dish was Pork Chops with Rich Caper-Lemon Sauce, which was made by Dee. It was so good. I’m not very good at cooking pork chops – I usually overcook them and they turn out very dry. These were perfectly cooked, which can be hard to do when you are cooking for a dinner party. The recipe can be found here:

We had some delicious side dishes! Nancy made the Sweetened Potato Rolls (notice how she selected the “Sweet” recipe) and the Black-Eyed Peas and Rice; Laura made the Maque Choux (Fried Corn with Green Peppers). I could have made a meal on the sides alone! Recipes are here: Sweetened Potato Rolls –; Black-Eyed Peas and Rice –; Maque Choux –

And yes, after all of this food, we still had dessert! I made the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and it was so easy and really delicious! The recipe is here:

All of the recipes we tried were wonderful, and I would definitely recommend Jubilee to everyone!

Je Voudrais Un Steak Frite S’il Vous Plais!

October 16, 2020

October of 2020 … we naively thought the worst of the pandemic was over. And it was so good to get together, since we had barely seen each other during the lockdown. We decided to be super indulgent and chose My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz as our cookbook for the meal. So many good recipes!

I was responsible for the appetizer, and made the Onion Tart. First of all, I am allergic to onions. Not the ‘throat closing, can’t breathe’ kind of allergic, but allergic nonetheless. And look at that mound of onions!

Secondly, I barely like anchovies, but can take them in small doses. So of course I think I bought the biggest ones out there!

It was delicious! And I will definitely make it again! For the recipe, click here:

Dee made the Fennel, Radish, Orange, and Crab Salad – OMG!! It was so beautiful and delicious! The recipe can be found here:

Laura (and Dave) were the hosts, and served Steak Frites. Délicieux! Dave made the steaks using the sous vide method, which was super smart when serving eight people, and wanting to get the meat done at the same time at the correct temperature. The recipe can be found here:

Nancy made the dessert – and it was spectacular! The Salted Butter Caramel-Chocolate Mousse is super indulgent, and just what we needed to finish this meal. The recipe can be found here:

So much fun, food, friendship, and doggies!

The “Ultimutt” Dog Party

September 25, 2020

Since Cookbook Club events were few and far between this year, I wanted to include something we did for our furry pals that our friends Jamie and Karen hosted. I mean who doesn’t love dogs?!?! And who doesn’t love a dog party?!?!

No cooking at this party … appetizers, pizza, and booze. And dog treats. And dog snuggles.

Randi, Otis, Bowie, and Huck looking for a place to poop.
Huck smiling for the camera.

Randi, Bowie, Otis, Jack, Huck, Blue, Oscar, and Brutus were there along were their parents. And although I don’t I have a pet, I consider myself a god-parent to all of my furry friends.

Oscar and Jamie

This was Jack’s first time socializing with the others, and he did great!

Jack under the chair, protecting his ball.

Pup-cakes for all puppies!

It was a great night hanging out with our human and furry friends.

Otis enjoying the fire.
Bowie and Karen

Dim Sum Very Nice Dumplings You Have There

September 4, 2020

In between Cookbook Club events, we still get together and cook. Well, usually Nancy does the cooking, and we do the eating. Nancy and Laura love dim sum and dumplings, so …. Dumpling Party!

The menu consisted of shrimp toast, shrimp and pork dumplings, and Chinese spareribs with black bean sauce, and fried rice. Yum!

I was put in charge of the Chinese Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce – easy right? The recipe looked easy and straight forward, and I was sure I had seen black bean sauce with garlic at the grocery store multiple times. After going to four grocery stores and the Asian market twice, I ended up back at the Asian Market to finally buy the ingredient. This took way longer than making the whole recipe. The recipe for Chinese Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce is here:

The shrimp toast was SO GOOD! I had never had it before, and it was delicious!

We all pitched in to make the dumplings. It was actually pretty easy, especially when Nancy made the fillings ahead of time.

It turns out I really do like dumplings, and have jumped on the Laura and Nancy Dumpling Train!

Smitten with The Smitten Kitchen

July 10, 2020

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray … or something like that! Our intention was to have Cookbook Club once a month. The first one was in February, so the second one should be in March … correct? Well, not in 2020. COVID raised its ugly head and put us all in a quarantine-like status – pretty much staying at home, doing puzzles, bingeing Netflix, and communicating by FaceTime, Zoom, and Instagram. For what seemed like years. Finally in June things started looking up, and we got back to planning our next meal. We all follow The Smitten Kitchen on Instagram, and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook really rocks – like “I want to make everything in it” rocks!

The Smitten Kitchen Instagram page is full of delicious recipes for cocktails, so we decided to do the Bourbon Slush Punch – so good!

It was also a beautiful night out, so we had cocktails on the terrace!

Nancy was the hostess, and responsible for the main dish. She chose Harvest Roast Chicken with Grapes, Olives, and Rosemary. It was delicious!

I made the appetizer/salad, and chose Tomato Scallion Shortcakes with Whipped Goat Cheese. I had not much luck in the past making biscuits, but these turned out great!

Dee provided the side, which was Roasted Fingerling and Carrot Coins. We gave her an easy one after she made the complicated and labor intensive cake last time!

And finally, what I think everyone will agree was the star of the show! Laura made the Blueberry Cornmeal Butter Cake, and it was divine!

The wine selection was also fantastic – Paso Robles wine makers Desperada and Booker Vineyards – two of my favorites!

Overall – cocktail, meal, wine, company – could not be beat!

Small Victories

February 21, 2020

February 21, 2020 – a date that will go down in infamy. Not really! But it was the date of our first cookbook club dinner. When we finally decided that 2020 was the year we were going to get this thing going, we had no idea what was in store for the year. I retired on January 1, went on a kick ass retirement trip to Maui, and was just settling in to retirement life. Hanging with my friends over food and wine on the regular was my plan!

Back to the our first cookbook choice … Getting the cookbook club started was a small victory, so why not start with Small Victories by Julia Turshen? This is a great cookbook for people who have little time but want to make flavorful meals – although Dee may take exception with this statement. Nancy and I were out of town, so the recipe selection and assignments were left up to Dee, Laura, and Nancy’s husband Zach (our husbands and significant others are our supporting cast).

Roasted Scallion and Chive Dip

This dip was addicting! In fact I dream about it … sitting on the couch with a glass of champagne, salty potato chips and dip, watching a movie – yum! Needless to say, it went fast! The recipe can be found here:

Roasted Radishes with Kalamata Dressing


Cauliflower with Anchovy Breadcrumbs

I usually don’t get too excited about side dishes, but was intrigued by both recipes. Mainly because I saw how easy they both were to pull together since Nancy brought all of the ingredients to my house and made them both while we were munching on chips and dip. They were both delicious and deserving of a place at the table. The recipe for the roasted radishes can be found here:; the recipe for the cauliflower with anchovy breadcrumbs can be found here:

Grilled Skirt Steak with Pickled Jalapeño Relish

The hardest part of this recipe was finding the skirt steak – I went to two grocery stores before finding them at Humphrey’s Market (note to self – don’t forget about this place). After getting the steaks, this was probably the easiest recipe to pull together of the night. I made the jalapeño relish that afternoon, and grilled the steaks right before we were ready to eat. So easy and full of flavor! Here is the recipe:

Happy Wife, Happy Life Chocolate Cake

Dee definitely did not pull the “easy” card for this go round! She made the cake the night before, and said it was very labor intensive and that she dirtied every pan in her kitchen! All I know is that it was delicious, and we served it with a magnificent port to end the evening. Here is the recipe:

The guys did the dishes, and we made plans for the next Cookbook Club Meeting.