The Feast!

I spent most of Sunday with a glass of homemade wine in my hand, and sat at an old kitchen table stuffing “Aunt Sue’s” hand made cannoli.  That can only mean one thing-time for The Feast of the Assumption.  It’s a holy day marking Mary’s ascension into heaven.  And for Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, it’s the busiest week of the year.  Marrying food, faith, family and heritage.  For me, it’s a can’t miss event.

This year we returned to the house that belongs to my future sis-in-law’s great Aunt Sue.  The 90 year old cooks enough to feed an army, and opens her home, adjacent to Holy Rosary Church (the center of the celebration), to dozens of people…whether or not their last name ends in a vowel.  The home made spread was hearty and true to neighborhood.

Pizza, Cavatelli and meatballs, Eggplant Parmesan, Caprese salad, Stuffed Peppers, Breaded Chicken, Sausage, Pepperoni Rolls and Beef Braciole.

I sampled everything on the table, of course!  My kids went right for the meatballs.  But quickly moved on to all things sweet, most colorful of which was the layer cake made like the Italian flag.

When I was done with round one…after all, this is a marathon, not a sprint, I eagerly volunteered to help my Alisa fill her grandmother’s hand made cannoli shells.  She was so grateful for the help, she even shared the secret ingredient to her cannoli filling (Dream Whip)  and invited me back to do the same job on Christmas Eve.

It was time to walk off some of our feast and check out the rest of the action.  We walked through the carnival portion (with short detours for a Ferris Wheel ride, and obligatory gambling at the church…we’re Catholics, after all) then past the gauntlet of food stands and vendors all serving up the neighborhood’s best.  Sausage and peppers wrapped in pizza, steamed clams, Stromboli.  You could linger for the entire length of the four day festival and still not eat everything you can smell as you walk down Mayfield Road.

We stopped by the historic Alta House, a community center that once served as a place for Italian immigrants to get help with housing, employment and language skills.  Now it’s mostly a recreation center, including several bocce courts that played host to a coed tournament.  But before we could take off our belts, to help determine who was closest to the “pallin” (really spelled pallino)-common practice-it was time to head back to Aunt Sue’s for the private concert in Sue’s driveway, courtesy the Italian Band of Cleveland.

It was such a treat, not only to listen to this charming group, but also to watch generations of people enjoying it together.

 

I’m so pleased to have spend another weekend among good people, great food and strong traditions.  Buona Festa, everyone!

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The Generour Pour: Capital Grille

Great steak and unbeatable wines.  That combo made for a spectacular meal this week at The Capital Grille at Legacy Village.  They’ve got a summer promotion worth toasting to, The Generous Pour, that we had the pleasure of experiencing this week.  

The wine tasting event brings you seven of “The Critics’ Darlings,” which are 90+ point California wines that should please even the pickiest of oenophiles.  You can plot it out however you’d like, depending on what you’ll be dining on.

We knew we were coming for a long, indulgent meal.  And since we’d been to the steakhouse before we also knew what we’d be ordering, so we worked with our fabulous server, Tommy Violante, to map out our pairings.

To start we went large!  Out of the gate we ordered the Cold Shellfish Platter and Fried Lobster Tails (off the menu but a house speciality).  Pass the lemon wedges and the seafood bibs! All were prepared to perfection.

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For that, Tommy brought us the first three tastings, all whites.  We had a lovely WillaKenzie Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley (90 points), a Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma (92 points) and my favorite of the trio, a Cambria, Clone 4 Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley.

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This was a surprise, because I don’t normally favor Chardonnay, and it’s rare to see that variety come out of the Santa Barbara area.  THIS is the reason you experience wine tastings like these!.

Knowing I had a SERIOUS steak coming at me shortly, I responsibly ordered a kale salad (and no decadent sides, like I wanted to!).  Then our server brought out the other four tastings for us to sip on through the rest of our meal.  If ever one struck us more than the others, or if all of them did, he offered to top off the glasses. Generous Pour, indeed.  They were not stingy with these high end wines.

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So, out came a 90 point Siduri Pinot Noir, also from Willamette Valley, and Arrowood “Sonoma Estates” Cabernet Sauvignon (2014) from Sonoma County, a 91 point Edmeades Zinfandel out of Mendocino and a 92 point Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon (2012) from Napa Valley.  Each offered rich flavors and a few surprises.  The Pinot Noir had just enough body to it for this phase of the meal.  The Zinfandel was far stronger than you’re used to and very smooth.  But the Mt. Brave Cab was by far my favorite, and worth savoring!

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Oh yeah, there was steak too!  On our server’s suggestion, I tried a bone in filet for the first time. The cut was enormous, compared to what you usually see in a high end steak house and it wasn’t all bone….lots of velvety meat seasoned beautifully.  My husband had a bone in ribeye, and wasn’t disappointed.

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And just as the words, “I could use something sweet to finish the meal” came out of my mouth and hung over the intimate booth we were dining in, Tommy brought over a Creme Brûlée and Flourless Chocolate Expresso Cake.  The perfect note to finish the meal, and the wines!

To me, it’s the service that sets The Capital Grille apart from other steak houses.  The cuts are spectacular, no doubt.  But it’s the experience, like a chance to sip on The Generous Pour, perfectly paired with our personal meal selections, that makes it a worthwhile dining destination.  The best part? This summer promotion is only a $28 add on to your meal.  And you can win a bottle of all of seven of the wines featured.  Just head to The Captial Grille location near you before September 3rd.

Disclosure: I was invited by the Captial Grille Public Relations team to experience this promotion.  But as always, all opinions are my own.

Basil Fest!

 

 

 

 

Put basil in just about anything and I will try it.  Kinda like bacon.  I think it’s got a place in both sweet and savory dishes from apps to desserts and this time of year I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re lucky, and you’ve been an attentive gardener this summer, right about now your basil is blowing up.  Fortunately for me, my blooming basil timed out with my favorite sous chef (my sister) spending some time in town.  We love spending time in the kitchen together.  And we love preparing big family feasts together.  She had a brilliant idea this go ’round: Basil Fest.  We picked as much as we could from my garden, my parents, and a neighbor and went to town!

basil harvest

I had a bucket full of bright, big, flawless green leaves to work with, so coming up with the menu wasn’t tough.  There were still plenty of fresh, juicy strawberries to be had and tomatoes are just starting to ripen around here.  So those, plus all of our basil harvested, and another neighbor’s fig tree were the inspiration for the menu.

basil fest menu

I started with the lemonade.  I love making home made lemonade!  It’s a few extra steps compared to dumping the powder and mixing it with water of course, but I think the fresh tasting results are worth it.  I used Paula Dean’s recipe for strawberry basil lemonade.   I halved it, since I didn’t have the time or energy to juice a whole bushel full of lemons, and it was easy and fabulous.  Bonus: makes a good mixer for cocktails, too!

strawberry basil lemonad

Next, I moved on to my panzanella.  I like to let mine sit for a while to soak up all the juices and really marinate.  This is where my Cheftovers magic comes into play.  Panzanella is a salad that combines bread (leftover or stale, preferred actually) and fresh veggies.  So I cut a handful of rolls we had left over from the previous weekend’s barbecue into cubes, and toasted them up in a pan.  Voila!  What would have been trash is now an essential component to my colorful salad.

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There are plenty of routes you can take with panzanella depending on your taste and what yo’ve got on hand.  I used fresh tomatoes, yellow and orange peppers, cucumbers, red onion and a ton of BASIL, naturally.  I tossed everything together and dressed it with a simple red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing (seasoned with only salt and pepper).  If they made a panzanella print I would wear it as a dress!  Isn’t it beautiful looking?

panzanella

I took more of those same leftover rolls and used those for the base of my bruschetta.   No surprise, more tomatoes and basil at play here.  But instead of finely chopping the garlic to add to that killer combo, or painstakingly shaving garlic and scraping the freshly cut cloves on to the toasted bread, I decided to finally break in my “brand new” mortar and pestle I scored from cookbook author, Michael Ruhlman’s estate sale.  By using that tool, I created a smooth garlic paste to mix in with the fresh basil (minced) and tomatoes (diced).  Drizzle that with olive oil and pile it on to toasted bread and you’ve got a bright, crunchy bite with a more gentle and evenly distributed garlic flavor that other methods will deliver.

 

Now it was time to move on to the real work-the pasta.  This is where my sister shines.  I have tried, and tried and listened and watched.  But my homemades never seem to turn out the way hers do.  So I let her go to town, making fresh noodles with the help of my 3 year old, a real chef in the making.  The only secret I can share that maybe you won’t find in other recipes: she pours white wine into the shell of the empty egg she uses for the dough and adds it to the mix.  It’s magic.

While those beautiful noodles rested, I made the pesto.  More BASIL! Lots more basil.  Recipe follows.  One trick that will help you keep your pesto that beautiful bright green of the leaves, and not brown from bruising them-add a little ice to the food processor!  And if you don’t keep pine nuts in your pantry (I usually don’t because they’re so expensive but for this dinner we were sticking to tradition) substitute almonds for a cheaper, super food solution.

pasta with pesto

When it was time to cook and toss the pasta in with the pesto, I warmed it up in a large pan, and loosened it up with some olive oil.  I added grilled chicken for some protein, but shrimp is nice with pesto too.  And be sure to sprinkle your pesto generously with some Parmesan or Romano.  While the pasta was cooking we sliced up the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and more juicy tomatoes then hand picked the prettiest and largest basil leaves left to top off our caprese salad. (BONUS: We learned a new hack from the cheese vendor where we bought the log of buffalo mozzarella-slice it with dental floss for a smooth even cut)

better caprese salad

This is an easy finish after you’ve sliced and stacked the components.  Just drizzle it with the best olive oil you’ve got and then top it with balsamic vinegar, or even better, balsamic glaze for a sweeter touch.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and let the flag of Italy inspired salad sing!

When we plated everything up it made for a stunning tablescape of BASIL centric dishes.  I set a nice table and we feasted on our hard work.

AND-we couldn’t forget dessert! Using a recipe from Fabio Viviani’s new cookbook (Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian) as inspiration, I combined ricotta, honey, mascarpone cheese and put a dollop of that on a freshly picked fig (halved), courtesy my parent’s neighbor.  Drizzle that with more of the balsamic glaze and top it with another perfectly petite basil leaf and you have a sweet and savory finish to Basil Fest.

Now you know there is more where that came from!  Still plenty more of my favorite herb growing in my garden.  So, inspire me!  What are you making with your basil? What should I try? 

Basil Pesto

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

 

 

Late Spring Plate Landscape: Farm to (Farmer’s) Table

Summer is in full swing, but in harvest terms, it’s still spring.  And the team at Spice Acres inside the Cuyahoga National Park is ready to show off their bounty.  We attended the first Plated Landscape Dinner at the Farmhouse home of Chef Ben Bebenroth (of Spice Kitchen and Bar) and his family.  What a treat! It was such a charming setting surrounded by beautiful fields and fitting farmhouse details.


We were greeted by staff from the restaurant, with passed appetizers and a refreshing elderberry cocktail.
Then we got a guided tour around the property from Andrea, a trusted caretaker of the land. We walked through fields of chamomile, red veined leafy greens, purple asparagus and climbing hops. 
Then we migrated to the shabby chic surroundings of the rehabbed barn across the street from the fields. Long communal tables were set with an enticing menu and thoughtful wine pairings.  


Taste, touch, smell, sight and sound (thanks to the cellist and acoustic guitarist on hand)…all the senses were tickled as we got to know our fellow diners. 


We were treated to the bright bounty of Spice Acres.  Five courses of beautifully prepared plates, starting with a chilled pea soup with scape and fennel, paired with Jeio Cuvée Rose, which was crisp and refreshing.  It was a great way to open up our palates.  Course two featured some of those lovely greens we saw in the fields, dressed with crab apple vinaigrette, pickled blueberries and chile roasted pistachios (my favorite element of the dish), and paired with Marie de Beauregard Vouvray which had a nice sweet finish.  Our third course, Verlasso Salmon, utilized the lovely chamomile from the field.  It was smoked, along with cucumber, fennel and beet.  I loved the smoked chamomile for a light smokey flavor, not at all overpowering the seared fish.  The Spice team poured Becker Pinor Noir with this dish.  


The final savory course was a Spice Bush + Honey Confit Duck Breast with braised endive and strawberry gastritis for a sweet and tart component to the delicious duck.  The wine pairing for this dish was my favorite, a perfectly dry Pecchenino San Luigui Fogliami Dolcetto.  And for dessert, there was a Wild Chamomile Mousse with lemon curd berries with kamut shortbread and bee pollen, paired with a Von Wilhelm Spatlese Reisling.  It was light, sweet and satisfying. 


You can also experience this kind of farm to table evening through the Plated Landscape Series.  There are several more dinners like these throughout his the summer and deep into the fall.  Head to Eventbrite‘s Plated Landscape page for event information and tickets.  

Vitamix basics class

There are a few kitchen tools and applicances out there that can change the way you cook, and eat, forever.  They can encourage healthy eating, cut down on prep time, and expand your culinary horizons.  My new Vitamix Ascent series falls into that category.  I’m never turning back!   


To make best use of my new machine and get acclimated with the various settings and capabilities, I attended a Vitamix basics class at the company’s one and only brick and mortar store in Solon, Ohio.  The store manager Michelle, and her team helped a small crowd get to know all the delicious, versatile and healthy creations one can make with this awesome blender.

Attendees were treated to generous samples and invited to help out in executing the 8 recipes demonstrated during the class to have a more hands on experience.  I did a Facebook live during the first portion of the class.  If you’d like to check it out, click here:  Vitamix Basics Class Facebook Live Video


We started with a cocktail, a healthy one made with spinach. Since the class, I have made this at least a dozen times, even putting my own twist on it occasionally, adding things like half an avocado or almond milk to make it creamy. 


Next we sampled and prepared an example of what Vitamix is famous for, smoothies.  This one had beets, strawberries, and cranberries in it.  Since I couldn’t find frozen cranberries in my grocery store I substituted with frozen cherries when I tried this at home, plus I added some of the green beet tops for additional nutrients.  This one is another new go-to for me in the mornings.  Look at the vibrant color on this!  

I don’t know about you, but summer salads are a staple in my lunch box and dinner table, especially with all the lettuce varieties I have planted in my garden this year.  But I am always looking for new bold dressings to spice it up.  The creamy raspberry vinaigrette was a sweet tart punch, that would be beautiful with a nice spinach salad, for example.  I have a bucket full of fresh picked strawberries that are super ripe, so I’m planning to try this recipe with those as well.  

For a “main course” of our class, Michelle demonstrated a black bean soup.  Technically the Vitamix doesn’t cook the soup, but the blades run for five minutes to fully blend all of the ingredients together and the finished product is piping hot.  You can transfer the soup to a pot to cook further, or freeze it if you’d like. It was creamy, spicy and filling.  I can see us making this a great quick-fix weeknight dinner option, or an easy meal to take to friends houses when you’re visiting a new baby or new home.  


This class also helped me think of the Vitamix not just as a blender, but also as a food processor.  It’ll cut down your chop time significantly on recipes like homemade salsa.  I tried it on a pineapple salsa I was making for a TV demo and was thrilled at the results.   

Want something you can make your kids with only two ingredients? Try the raw applesauce.  I love knowing it only has natural sugars in it when I spoon it on to their plates. 


Hummus is anothe recipe people rarely seem to try on their own, but it is so very delicious when made fresh.  The version Micheel made for the demo was creamy and easy, and a perfect make ahead item for a party or healthy option to have in the fridge for the week. 

We made the Vitamix work the hardest when we saw Michelle turn four cups of cashews into homemade cashew butter.  I would spread that on a tire and still want to eat it! To be honest, I was hoping that making it myself would make it a little less expensive.  That isn’t necessarily the case, depending on where you buy your nuts, but it may still be worth it for those who eat it by the jar, or who would appreciate knowing the nutritional content, and controlling it. My daughter now claims she can taste the difference between my homemade peanut butter and store bought.  I actually believe her. It’s that good. 


Can’t believe the machine actually cleans itself out after that, especially with something so sticky.  Michelle shared a great tip too!  On days she makes nut butters, before she cleans out her container, she will make something with the residual product, like a peanut sauce or a peanut butter milk shake.  Great Cheftovers ideas!  

For dessert, we had a refreshing strawberry lime sorbet.  I’ve been picking fresh strawberries and stocking up on beautiful other berries while they’re in season, then freezing them.  Can’t wait to put them to use with a sorbet using my “frozen dessert” program on my own machine.

When I got home from the class, I immediately wanted to start putting all of these great ideas and applications to work.  I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.  But I have been working on some pesto recipes using my Vitamix, like a mint pea and a kale walnut combo. Tell me what you think!

Kale Walnut Pesto

  • 1/3 walnuts, toasted
  • 1/4 grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 c. Chopped kale
  • 1 T. Lemon juice
  • 1.2 c. Olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 t. Salt
  • 1/4 pepper

Add all above ingredients except the olive oil into your Vitamix or food processor. Begin mixing and slowly stream=a in your oil until the mixture is smooth.  Add more if it’s too dry.  Taste for seasoning and refridgerate or use immediately.  

Disclosure: I was invited by Vitamix to attend this class free of charge.  All opinions are my own.

Ultimate Culinary Clash

Cleveland culinary students valiantly took on San Francisco counterparts and competitors from as far away as Mexico City in this week’s Ultimate Culinary Clash at The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in The Bay City. 

Following the regional competition at Table 45 inside the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland, the local team headed west to compete against culinary teams representing other Intercontinental properties. 


The stakes were high, $5,000 scholarship money to the team with the winning appetizer and entree combination. 

Meet the competitors: 

Luce, representing the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. This crew presented a menu of Tostones with Soffrito, and Aji Amarillo. 


The Nob Hill Club, representing the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, also in San Francisco, made Asparagus Veloutee and Glazed Pork Belly with Fennel Pollen Grits and Dandelion Greens.


Cafe Urbano, representing the Intercontinental Hotel property in Mexico City, put out Drunk Salad and Tekuani Beef. 


And my home town team from Table 45, the culinary team from the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland, presented an Aleppo Pepper Roasted Pork Belly and Miso Roasted Sable Fish. 


Janice Campbell, a culinary student at Tri-C, and her Sous Chef, Cynthia Rice, put together a menu that plenty of people at the event were talking about. They should be proud of their efforts! 


I served as a judge along with several San Francisco food authorities and a representative from Mexico City. Each station thoughtfully prepared their dishes for us, and the crowd, which was also asked to judge their plates (for taste, seasonality, presentation and creativity). In addition, the students were judged on their engagement with guests and their ability to present and sell their dishes. 


The students weren’t the only ones on the spot. The executive chefs from the restaurants they represented were also challenged to put together passed appetizers incorporating sponsor product, Kikkoman.  


In addition, they had to develop a burger for the Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project. Each of those sliders had to contain 25% mushrooms, in an effort to curb meat consumption and foster more sustainability. 

Lots of eating and lots of judging. I was up for the task. The toughest category for me to judge was seasonality. I am not very familiar with what is in season in Mexico City or San Francisco. But I know good food when it hits my lips.  Among my favorites, were Student Chef Campbell’s marinated sable fish and the Cafe Urbano team’s drunk salad made with salt cured cactus leaf and a tequila vinaigrette.


In the end, the team from Nob HIll was victorious, taking home bragging rights and the scholarship money.  But the Cleveland team made food that had the room talking.  This was surely excellent real world, working kitchen experience, alas well as excellent exposure for all involved.  The culinary team from Table 45 showed the heavy hitters from the major culinary mecca that is San Francisco, just how great the food can be coming out of  CLE.

Cru Uncorked, a new fine dining destination in CLE

Who said white tablecloths were out? Not so. A new fine dining destination is pulling out all the stops to reassure Clevelanders, and visiting guests, that fine dining is not dead in our culinary crazy city. 


Perched at the corner of Chagrin Boulveard and SOM Center Road in Morland Hills, Cru Uncorked is a French New American restaurant five years in the making.  


The property itself is impressive even before you walk in the double doors to the entryway.  It’s made to look like a French Chateau inside and out, and it delivers.


Inside you’ll find four intimate and themed dining rooms, The Wine Cellar Room, The Terroir Room, The Winery Room and The Vineyard Room.  All are decorated slightly different to reflect a certain mood.  General Manager Billy Cutler tells me guests can choose the “scene” they’d like to dine in.  Some are decorated with original vineyard photography, or murals created from such photographs. 


The restaurant seats about 100, plus space for private events in a separate banquet room drenched in natural light in the afternoons.  There’s also a spacious and secluded patio in the back. Everywhere you walk you’re reminded of the time and care that went into creating this space.  


There are thoughtful details like the cedar lined ceiling of the lounge which makes you feel like you’re inside a wine barrel, and the antique grape gathering baskets affixed on the wall.  I was fascinated by the collection of vintage corkscrews, cheese knives and tastevins (small metal cups worn around their necks used instead of wine glasses to taste wine) displayed on the wall of The Wine Cellar Room.


Inside the spacious kitchen I was introduced to Executive Chef, John Stropki, who said it is an honor to be at the helm at such a place.  He was busying working through a dessert from the menu.  No pastry chef here, Stropk says.  He’s behind every item on the menu, which ranges from a burger to halibut and beautiful pasta options. Prices range from $26-$55.  But side dishes are included in the menu price for each dish.  Reps say they believe this makes them competitive in the local fine-dining scene, as a la carte side dishes can add an $15-18 more per entree.


Guests will also be able to choose from more than 200 wines from all over the world, thanks to their massive wine cellar with the capacity for 6,000 bottles.  And for a sweet finish to a meal, they have several dessert wine flights to choose from.


Cru Uncorked is preparing for top of the line service and exquisite meals for those who crave the finer things in life.  They’re accepting reservations now, ahead of their May 16th opening.  Bon Apetite! 

Pasta with Creamy Greens and Chicken Sausage

I’ve been making a real effort to find creative and tasty ways to eat more greens.  Smoothies only satisfy once a day, so it was time to get serious about incorporating more leafy greens into things other than a salad or juices.

Pasta is one of my favorite canvases.  I took a look inside my pantry and refrigerator last night and went to work.

Get out a food processor, and put on a pot of water.  This dish will satisfy served piping hot for dinner…or cold or room temp for lunch or a side dish.


Pasta with Creamy Greens and Chicken Sausage

2 Large clove garlic

4 c.  Loosely packed fresh spinach

4 c.  Loosely packed fresh kale, chopped

8 oz. (or 1/2 c.) cream cheese, softened

4 oz. (or 1/4 c.) goat cheese, softened

Salt and pepper to taste (1 t. Salt, 1/2 t. Pepper)

16 oz. Short pasta (like penne, rigatoni or rotini)

4 links chicken sausage (I used Parmesan Chicken Sausage from Fresh Thyme Farmers Market)

1/4 c. Grated Parmesean

1 tomato, sliced and 1 T. Chopped parsley (for garnish)

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook pasta al dente.  Heat a grill pan or frying pan and prepare the sausage until it’s browned on the outside and cooked through.  Combine the rest of the ingredients (except for grated cheese, tomatoes and parsley) in a food processor or a blender, like a Vitamix. Blend until smooth, then taste to adjust seasoning.  Drain pasta and reserve about a 1/2 cup of the pasta water to loosen the sauce later, if necessary.  Slice the sausage into bite sized pieces.  Transfer pasta to a serving bowl and add greens mixture and sliced sausage.  Stir until until everything is combined.  Top with tomatoes, grated cheese and parsley.

Serves four.  If you’re using the new Vitamix Ascent, your should double the recipe for the volume minimum.  Sauce will keep for about a week  or your can freeze the extra.

I am always looking for better ways to eat, or drink, my greens.  I’ve shared my newest secret…what are yours?