An Italian Inspired Elegant Afternoon Brunch with Great Friends

On Saturday, I hosted a get together for amazing friends. When you work closely with people for several years day in and day out, you develop a very special relationship that often extends beyond your tenure at the organization. I changed jobs about 9 months ago, and since moving on I’ve rarely had the chance to connect with three of my close ex-colleagues. These guys had contributed significantly to my professional growth and we have so many amazing memories of not only working hard, but playing hard together. Since it’s been a while since we’ve all spent time together, I wanted to make something really special for them and their spouses.

As a hostess, I knew that I wanted to make sure that my guests felt especially cared for. Even though all of us live relatively closely (with the exception of one person who moved out of state), our lives, work, extracurriculars and family often take up our free time. Knowing that my guests had to make special arrangements to travel to Queens, I wanted to create a really relaxing yet elegant vibe, where deliberate mindfulness and hospitality appear effortless.

The start time for the party proved to be challenging in setting a menu. With one person traveling from out of state, we decided to start at 2 pm, for a late afternoon brunch that went into the early evening. I took some time to think about the menu, and decided to break the meal into three distinctive parts – appetizers and salad, main course and dessert.

To prepare for the party, I decided to batch a cocktail earlier in the morning so that as my guests arrived, I would be able to greet them with a drink. I had an amazing tiki cocktail at our local favorite bar a few weeks ago and loved the beverage and the presentation. I ended up purchasing the same glasses and created a similar drink.

 A special homemade welcome cocktail made with dark rum, spiced rum, amaro, lime juice, simple syrup, pineapple juice and orange juice.  A special homemade welcome cocktail made with dark rum, spiced rum, amaro, lime juice, simple syrup, pineapple juice and orange juice.

To create a comfortable environment, I set up the appetizers on our coffee table, on a neutral toned tablecloth. Using slate boards and a slate and wood stand created both an elegant yet modern appearance, and the dark backdrop really helped to make my colorful crostini pop!

 Great parties start with a great cheeseboard. My favorites: truffle gouda, wensleydale with cranberries, cave aged cheddar, creamy goat cheese, truffled marcona almonds, dried apricots and cranberries, fresh strawberries, fresh figs, fig jam, and wildflower honey.   Great parties start with a great cheeseboard. My favorites: truffle gouda, wensleydale with cranberries, cave aged cheddar, creamy goat cheese, truffled marcona almonds, dried apricots and cranberries, fresh strawberries, fresh figs, fig jam, and wildflower honey.    A little tower of crostini: pea pesto with baby tomatoes, ricotta with lemon zest, strawberries, basil and honey, and ricotta with figs, pistachio and honey.  A little tower of crostini: pea pesto with baby tomatoes, ricotta with lemon zest, strawberries, basil and honey, and ricotta with figs, pistachio and honey.   Pro-tip: use the same base (in this case, ricotta cheese), while varying up the toppings makes it easy to serve different types of crostini without a lot of extra work!  Pro-tip: use the same base (in this case, ricotta cheese), while varying up the toppings makes it easy to serve different types of crostini without a lot of extra work!   Providing a few printed menus on the table helps to let guests know what they're having while you make drinks, greet new arrivals, cook hot dishes, or deal with last minute details. This also gets them excited for the next course!  Providing a few printed menus on the table helps to let guests know what they’re having while you make drinks, greet new arrivals, cook hot dishes, or deal with last minute details. This also gets them excited for the next course!   My husband called this the best bacon he's ever had. It's called Praline Bacon, and it's an easy recipe using thick-cut bacon, pecans and brown sugar. Alton Brown has really perfected this, so if you want to try it out, check out his recipe here . I would recommend checking the oven often - mine didn't need as much time to crisp up.  My husband called this the best bacon he’s ever had. It’s called Praline Bacon, and it’s an easy recipe using thick-cut bacon, pecans and brown sugar. Alton Brown has really perfected this, so if you want to try it out, check out his recipe here . I would recommend checking the oven often – mine didn’t need as much time to crisp up.   These pretty little mushrooms taste even better than they look. I learned about these after having dinner at the recently crowned #1 restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park. These are organic maitake mushrooms. They're fluffy and woody, and all you need to do is slice them up, add olive oil (a little more than you think you need, mushrooms soak up oil), salt and pepper, and pop them into a hot 400F oven for about 15 minutes.  These pretty little mushrooms taste even better than they look. I learned about these after having dinner at the recently crowned #1 restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park. These are organic maitake mushrooms. They’re fluffy and woody, and all you need to do is slice them up, add olive oil (a little more than you think you need, mushrooms soak up oil), salt and pepper, and pop them into a hot 400F oven for about 15 minutes.   While my guests settled in and enjoyed their first appetizers, I threw together a quick salad of oranges, blood oranges, grapefruit, avocado, arugula, microgreens, fresh mozzarella, pistachios and lemon zest. I had prepared the fruit in advance by removing all of the skin and slicing it into rounds. A quick dressing can also be made in advance - mine was a citrus wildflower honey vinaigrette with a little bit of balsamic vinegar that I brought back from my trip to Italy last year.  While my guests settled in and enjoyed their first appetizers, I threw together a quick salad of oranges, blood oranges, grapefruit, avocado, arugula, microgreens, fresh mozzarella, pistachios and lemon zest. I had prepared the fruit in advance by removing all of the skin and slicing it into rounds. A quick dressing can also be made in advance – mine was a citrus wildflower honey vinaigrette with a little bit of balsamic vinegar that I brought back from my trip to Italy last year.

After appetizers and catching up, we all settled in for a bit of competition. Using the Jackbox Party Pack, we played a few games that involved using our phones to come up with lies while discovering truths, and others on trivia. After the second quick game, I excused myself to cook the pasta dishes, which were the main course.

 Making pasta for a crowd is really challenging! Timing is key. You don't really want pasta sitting out for a long time as it loses its al dente texture. Since I was using fresh homemade pasta, I started by making the sauce and kept it on a low simmer on the stove while I boiled the pasta. Here is a fresh pasta dish of homemade garganelli, proscuitto, fresh shelled peas, arugula, microgreens, cream, lemon and parmesan.  Making pasta for a crowd is really challenging! Timing is key. You don’t really want pasta sitting out for a long time as it loses its al dente texture. Since I was using fresh homemade pasta, I started by making the sauce and kept it on a low simmer on the stove while I boiled the pasta. Here is a fresh pasta dish of homemade garganelli, proscuitto, fresh shelled peas, arugula, microgreens, cream, lemon and parmesan.   For the main course. I wanted to feature two different types of homemade pasta. This one was a sweet sausage, tomato and ricotta ravioli with cacio e pepe sauce. I had made the sauce the day before and put it in a squeeze bottle. Warming it up in the microwave took about 1 minute. This made it really easy to serve! I set out plates on the kitchen peninsula and once the ravioli were cooked, spooned them onto each plate. Then I topped each with warm sauce, a few sprigs of microgreens and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper.  For the main course. I wanted to feature two different types of homemade pasta. This one was a sweet sausage, tomato and ricotta ravioli with cacio e pepe sauce. I had made the sauce the day before and put it in a squeeze bottle. Warming it up in the microwave took about 1 minute. This made it really easy to serve! I set out plates on the kitchen peninsula and once the ravioli were cooked, spooned them onto each plate. Then I topped each with warm sauce, a few sprigs of microgreens and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper.   These little ravioli pack a serious punch. The squeeze bottle and microgreens take this dish from deliciously homemade to top restaurant quality.  These little ravioli pack a serious punch. The squeeze bottle and microgreens take this dish from deliciously homemade to top restaurant quality.   Both pastas!  Both pastas!

After letting our pasta digest briefly, I served an Italian pear almond cake, which I had baked the night before. I found the recipe on Pinterest from a popular Canadian food blog, Seasons and Suppers. Served with a simple cream of mascarpone, marsala wine and orange, it was more fruity than sweet, yet still very decadent.

 My light and fruity pear and almond cake. Unfortunately we didn't snap one of the cream, which was delicious and totally made this simple dessert shine!  My light and fruity pear and almond cake. Unfortunately we didn’t snap one of the cream, which was delicious and totally made this simple dessert shine!

So there you have it! It was an absolutely lovely afternoon-evening where we shared great food, lots of laughs and made memories that will last a lifetime.

The Latest in Mindfulness is Pasta Meditation: Making Garganelli

For a long time, I felt that I wasn’t good at meditation. In my mind, meditation meant that I was sitting cross legged, hands gently resting on my thighs, palms up, head clear, breathing in and out slowly and purposely without letting my mind wander of falling asleep. Whether it was guided or unguided, I felt like even 5 minutes was too long for me. Not only did I always feel like I didn’t have time to meditate, when I could find the time, I couldn’t even sit still for the short duration. Thinking that this type of meditation wasn’t for me, I knew I needed a different solution. And that’s when I stumbled upon the idea of cooking meditation.

Cooking is an activity that inherently requires us to be fully present. After all, if you’re not fully present while chopping vegetables, you might just cut your fingers off. You have to be fully present to put the right amount of salt and seasoning in your food, you have to be present not to burn dinner, and you most definitely have to be present while measuring ingredients for baked goods. Not only does it require full presence, it also allows for connection. To me, cooking provides me with a way to connect. I connect with food through my hands, and I use food and cooking to connect with others. It’s an activity that is both productive and creative, purposeful and meaningful. When we fully engage in cooking, we engage with all of our senses – our sense of smell, taste, sight, touch and even sound.

When I think about all of my favorite hobbies and things to do, cooking ranks up there as probably my favorite thing to do in the world. I love cooking for myself and my husband, entertaining our friends, or challenging myself to make something new and exciting. Cooking satisfies my soul in a way that nothing else does. It provides me and the people I love with nourishment and pleasure; it satisfies the the mind, body and soul.  It calms me down after a long day of work, and it gives me the space to be creative and to enjoy beauty and excellence.

So, of course, one of my favorite youtube stars is Andrew Rea, or Oliver Babish from Binging with Babish. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically short tutorials and recreations of recipes from television and movies. In one episode, Babish makes il timpano, a baked pasta dish filled with meatballs, boiled eggs, red sauce and garganelli. As soon as I watched the episode, I knew I wanted to make garganelli one day.

A few weeks ago, I finally got my chance to make homemade garganelli – a tubular shaped hand rolled pasta that requires fresh pasta sheets being cut into small squares 2×2 squares, folded on a wooden dowel and rolled on a small wooden comb called a pettine. Similar to their less glamorous cousin, penne, garganelli differs in that a “flap” is visible where one corner of the pasta square adheres to the rest, as opposed to a perfect cylinder in penne.

To understand this specialty of Emilia-Romaga, I  read a cookbook called Making Artisan Pasta by Aliza Green. Aliza described garganelli as coming from the Italian word garganeli, meaning a chicken’s gullet, or “gargle” in English. The dough contains a healthy amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and freshly grated nutmeg, giving it a speckled appearance and a delicious smell. The dough is slightly moist but pretty firm, and has the texture of a nice cool playdoh.

 Here I am, rolling out dough using this awesome kitchen-aid pasta tool. It's an absolute must have for all your homemade pasta sheets, and it's 100x easier than using a traditional hand crank pasta machine.  Here I am, rolling out dough using this awesome kitchen-aid pasta tool. It’s an absolute must have for all your homemade pasta sheets, and it’s 100x easier than using a traditional hand crank pasta machine.   Once the dough was rolled out to the right thickness, I used a ruler and a fluted pasta cutter to cut the dough into 2x2 squares. This particular cutter could cut either a fluted or straight pattern.  Once the dough was rolled out to the right thickness, I used a ruler and a fluted pasta cutter to cut the dough into 2×2 squares. This particular cutter could cut either a fluted or straight pattern.

Though immensely tedious, I gave my full concentration on each of those fluted square shapes, taking the time to gently place each one on the dowel and rolling it onto the board just so- that the tiny ridges formed and the edges sealed perfectly, resulting in a perfectly shaped garganello. Sliding the tube gently off the dowel, I reached for the next piece of square dough.

 The gentle yet firm folding technique on the board that creates the grooves in the pasta and seals the edges.  The gentle yet firm folding technique on the board that creates the grooves in the pasta and seals the edges.   Each completed garganello brought me a little bit of joy.  Each completed garganello brought me a little bit of joy.

The purposeful balance of being not too light- as to not stamp on the ridges and give the dough a proper seal, or too heavy- which would make the dough stick on the dowel and in the board was my only task. With each gargenello, I improved my technique. It was as natural as breathing, yet it required sheer concentration. When one didn’t come out as perfect as the others, I simply noted it, letting the pasta gently slide onto a wooden board without judgement. Soon, a portion’s worth of garganelli was laid in front of me. I kept going. 6 portions later, I was done. A few hours must had passed. I’m not sure exactly how much time had elapsed, but I felt so calm, so satisfied, a container of perfectly formed hand rolled pasta sitting in front of me. I had just meditated for hours and didn’t even realize it. My mind had been clear, completely in focus. My hands moved organically yet purposefully. I had entered into a complete flow state, where I lost track of time, the temperature, hunger or thirst. I was fully absorbed in this beautiful activity of making pasta.

 Once I got into the grove of this activity, I completely lost track of time.  Once I got into the grove of this activity, I completely lost track of time.   6-8 portions of garganelli, all done.  6-8 portions of garganelli, all done.

When it comes to mindfulness, I believe in doing what works for you. What calms your mind? What makes you feel completely at ease? What activity can you do where you feel completely absorbed, where you enter the flow zone? Where your hands, mind, and heart are all connected and fully engaged? For me, it’s making this labor intensive, beautiful pasta. If you don’t believe me, try it! It might just work for you too.

 The second best part of this mindfulness activity: eating it.  The second best part of this mindfulness activity: eating it.


Want to try making garganelli? Here are the tools that you’ll need.