My Guest Chef Experience at Mandrava Kitchen

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Last week I cooked and served a mediterranean tapas dinner as a guest chef at Mandarava Kitchen in Newburyport. At 39, I wasn’t expecting to feel the exhilaration of a new experience, but I did. It was incredible and I loved every minute!

Before I tell you all about what it was like to be a chef for the night, let’s rewind ten years. I didn’t enjoy cooking, not even a tiny bit. I was queen of all things in a box: pasta with a jar of sauce and macaroni & cheese were a few of my greatest hits. We ordered takeout or went out to eat about 5 times a week.

Here I am now, a stay at home mom with a few cooking lessons plus hours of cooking at home asked to be a guest chef! I’m still pinching myself. How did this even happen?

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

It all started on Instagram. One day I posted a picture of a salad I made for lunch and Chef Mary Vyn commented saying that I should come cook with her at Mandarava. The next time I was in for lunch I asked, “Were you serious? I’d love to!” And so the planning began for my debut as a guest chef!

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Mandarava is a vegan, organic restaurant that offers one bowl for lunch based on the buddhist philosophy. It’s a scratch kitchen and their homemade bread is almost always gluten free. Therefore, our entire menu for my guest chef dinner was both gluten free and vegan: a perfect match for me. It’s such a challenge to eat out when you are conscious about what you eat. At Mandarava, I know the food is always going to be healthy and delicious.

When I arrived at 2pm, Mary and I enjoyed a cup of tea together while going over the menu details for our tapas dinner. We loosely put together the menu via emails and texts with room to create on the fly. So we nailed down some details over tea and decided who would start cooking what. With 6 courses, we had a lot of chopping ahead of us!

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

I made the gazpacho, hummus, roasted carrots, and salad from start to finish. Mary created melt-in-your-mouth vegan cheez-its, mission figs, paella, and peaches. Together we baked the bread, garnished, and plated. The entire meal was truly a collaboration.

Tapas Menu:
– Stuffed Mission Figs with a Cashew Cream
Gazpacho Andaluz
– Marjoram Skewered Rainbow Carrots with Hummus
– Arugula Salad with Oranges and Pepitas dressed with Newburyport Olive Oil & Vinegar
– Sweet Pepper Paella
– Grilled Peaches with Maple Cream

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Mary made me feel so welcome in the kitchen, but when I got started I was a little unsure of myself. Once I knew where to find everything, things went smoothly and I was super comfortable. We chatted and listened to the Cowboy Junkies. Chopping and roasting, blending and baking. It was actually quite relaxing, and so much fun.

Even though we’d never cooked together, Mary and I had such amazing synergy in the kitchen. We completed each others dishes and finished each other’s sentences. It was such a beautiful collaboration of creativity. I learned so much about what it’s like to work in a kitchen that night.

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

When the guests arrived, one of my friends called me Chef Westermann. That’s definitely something I’ve never heard before! After it registered, it sounded really good.

I never dreamed of being a chef. Now that I’ve planned, prepped, cooked, and served a successful six course tapas dinner at Mandarava Kitchen, maybe that’s a possibility. Who knows what the future holds! I could actually see myself going to culinary school. Either way, it’s certainly a passion.

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

My Guest Chef Experience at Mandarava Kitchen - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

I’m beyond grateful to Chef Mary for the opportunity to cook in her magical kitchen. It was already a happy place for me and I’ve definitely made it even happier by experiencing what it’s like to be on the other side of the counter. Thank you to the mother daughter owners of Mandarava Kitchen: Ellie and Mary, for trusting me and welcoming me into your special space. I look forward to setting a date to cook together again in the Fall!

Thank you to our dinner guests. Your constant mmmmm’s and easy conversation made my job a breeze! It was wonderful to cook for my super supportive friends and husband that night. It’s been humbling to have so many people believe in me.

Meg Manion Photography beautifully captured so many moments from that evening, even though the lighting was not ideal. Thank you Meg!

Blogging has opened some intriguing doors. Thanks for joining me on this adventure. Stay tuned for recipe posts from our tapas menu coming to the blog soon!

Cheers to Ceia!

Cheers to Ceia - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

It’s not often that you land a seat at the bar at a place like Cheers. A seat that welcomes you back time after time, with that cozy feeling of home. Here in Newburyport, Ceia Kitchen + Bar is our Cheers.

With restaurants coming and going, not much stays the same long enough to become part of you. We’ve tried most of the 80 restaurants in Newburyport during the 6 years that we’ve lived here. In fact, we’ve lived in Newburyport longer than any other city since Don and I got married almost 15 years ago.

It’s almost momentous, realizing that you’ve found that perfect spot. Many heated discussions have taken place in Ceia’s leather barstools. Don and I chose to celebrate buying our home there. We’ve shared drinks with friends, celebrated birthdays, enjoyed family meals, and slipped away for date nights.

When we got back from our trip to Paris and Madrid a few years ago, Ceia was where we wanted to be. The restaurant always magically transports me to Europe, even if it’s only for a few hours. The brick walls and copper bar create that old world feel with a modern edge. There’s bistro style seating on the sidewalk for people watching in the warmer weather. House made charcuterie plates are presented artfully on slate. Incredible smells drift through the restaurant from the open 2nd floor kitchen. And all those European wines!

JeremyGlover, Executive Chef at Ceia Kitchen and Bar in Newburyport - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

I recently had the chance to chat with Ceia’s Executive Chef, Jeremy Glover. He chooses to drive 45 minutes from Maine to Newburyport because he totally loves his job at Ceia, mostly because he has an amazing boss in Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor and wine director.

Chef Jeremy runs a scratch kitchen, which means everything is made fresh at the restaurant. This is super important to me as a food allergy mom because less suppliers means more control in the kitchen. I was really impressed with Jeremy’s philosophy on food allergies. Here’s how he handles food allergies in the kitchen at Ceia:

I try to not put allergens on the menu. 80% of our entrees and apps are gluten free. I don’t have pine nuts or peanuts, and no soy products. If we do get a food allergy customer, we take precautionary steps. Wash your hands. Wash all utensils. Put on gloves. If someone has been using nuts all night, and we get a nut allergy order, I’ll have another chef make it. I try to minimize it rather than having allergens everywhere and trying to control a chaotic event.

A food allergy Mom’s dream! There aren’t many restaurants that I trust to feed my monkeys because of their severe food allergies (peanut and Celiac). We feel safe at Ceia, and a lot of that has to do with the tone the chef sets in the kitchen. Here are some snippets from our chat:

UTMB :: Menu inspiration?
JG :: Usually what’s coming into season and what I want to eat.
UTMB :: Favorite kitchen gadget?
JG :: Blazen knives from Epic Edge.
UTMB :: Best olive oil?
JG :: Frantoia Barbera Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (#shoplocal at Grand Trunk!)
UTMB :: Advice for home chefs?
JG :: Use salt! Don’t be afraid of real butter.
UTMB :: Make at home?
JG :: Comfort food like roast chickens with root vegetables.

Check the blog next week for a recipe from Jeremy Glover’s kitchen. I’ll be telling more Food Stories from different areas of the industry in 2016. Until next time, friends!

Halloween Traditions

Halloween Traditions - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Our city of Newburyport is magical in October. The air is chilly and crisp. Leaves crunch against the brick sidewalks as you walk through the city streets. Crowds of people with hot beverages in hand pop into shops and restaurants.

Halloween is our favorite family holiday, mostly because of where we live. We trick-or-treated in Newburyport’s South End long before we lived here — even at the very house we live in now. With houses so close together, this city is the perfect place to trick-or-teat for kids of all ages. Little ones don’t have to walk far to fill up a bag of treats, not to mention it’s safe and beautiful.

My monkeys have learned over the years which houses are too scary and which houses give out extra special things. For example on Federal Street, there’s a woman who gives out balloons on Halloween night. As far as the monkeys are concerned, the house with the “Balloon Lady” is a permanent stop on their Halloween route.

What makes that balloon even more special is that you can’t eat it. My monkeys, like many others, have food allergies. They cannot touch, let alone eat, 99% of the candy they collect on Halloween because it could make them very sick or cause anaphylaxis. Bean has Celiac disease and a dairy sensitivity and Sweet Pea has a severe peanut allergy and a gluten intolerance. Between their different food allergies, we’ve never been able to let them eat candy from their Halloween treat bag.

You would think Halloween wouldn’t be much fun for a family with food allergies. I’m not going to sugar coat it; things were tough the first few years. But we’ve created our own Halloween traditions to make it safe and extra special for our little monkeys. I decorate the house almost as much as I do for Christmas. Our family takes a trip up to the White Mountains for some leaf peeping. We carve pumpkins, then bake pumpkin seeds and make muffins. On Halloween night, friends and neighbors come over to share a big pot of chili while the kids trick-or-treat and play in the yard together. It’s a simple celebration that makes these monkeys feel comfortable on a holiday that could be quite scary for them.

I’ve heard that people use the “Switch Witch” to trade Halloween candy for something else. Witches have always been a little too scary for my monkeys. Instead, I just trade them a party bag for their Halloween candy. This year, I’m filling the bag with natural allergy friendly candy, Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, and some of the non-food items we give out.

Kids collect SO much candy on Halloween. Have you ever thought about giving out something different? We participate in the Teal Pumpkin project, which raises awareness for food allergies by encouraging people to give out non-food treats so that trick-or-treaters with food allergies can fully participate. There are tons of fun alternatives to candy like glow sticks, coins (mostly pennies), small water bottles, witch fingers, pencils, and erasers. Join me in providing a safer, happier Halloween for allergy kids by placing a teal pumpkin in front of your home and giving out non-food treats. There will be plenty of candy handed out on Halloween even if some of us decide to give out something different.  

Get out there and enjoy the magical month of October! What are some of your family traditions this month?

Chasing Winter

GondolaMonkeys

I’m sure you are totally over winter — as most normal people are. And then there’s my family…chasing winter for the last fresh snow of the season.

Don and I left our Stowe, Vermont vacation earlier this month wanting more. We had such an amazing time and kept saying how we couldn’t wait to take the girls. How they would love the mountain, the ski conditions (no ice!), the shopping, and most of all, that they would be able to go out to eat! There was talk about going next season, maybe a few weekend trips.

And then you have one of those moments when you realize that life is too short to wait. So on a whim, we found a townhouse to rent for the weekend and within five days, we were at Stowe with our monkeys for an absolutely perfect winter family weekend.

FamilyatStowe

For those of you who don’t ski, Stowe Mountain is a much more difficult, challenging mountain than what we’re used to at Loon Mountain. It’s a steeper vertical with more black diamond and double black diamond terrain. I was super nervous that one of my monkeys (not mentioning any names here!!) would head down a double black trail ahead of us. I’m so proud that she didn’t! The monkeys stayed with us, listened, and skied their socks off! Don and I can’t believe how much more confidence and control they have on skis this year; we couldn’t stop smiling all weekend. Can you tell I’m a proud mama?

Whirlaway

MonkeysinStowe

I cooked up a storm last week to get ready for our weekend away (pumpkin muffins, blueberry beast bars, cornbread, roasted veggies, chicken salad). Eating breakfast and lunch at the townhouse would minimize the risk of allergic reactions. As you can imagine, it’s really difficult for us to eat out. Sweet Pea can’t eat at a restaurant that has peanuts in the kitchen and Bean needs a scratch kitchen without flour flying around (no pizza on the menu, not a lot of baking, etc). So happy to report that Bean didn’t get glutened! We had delicious meals at Flannel (Topnotch Resort) and Crop Bistro & Brewery. Both restaurants took great care of us and we were so grateful to relax and enjoy a meal together!

Crop

SweetPeaDrawsStowe

We didn’t realize how long it had been since we went away with the girls — not including staying with family. A few years, at least. The girls were giddy with excitement exploring the townhouse, playing hide and go seek while we unpacked and got settled. We rented the “Village Retreat” through Stowe Country Homes, who did an amazing job cleaning the kitchen in preparation of our stay. Not a crumb in sight! We ran the dishwasher and washed all of the pots and pans to avoid contamination. Traveling with these two is no walk in the park…but it’s 100% worth it. We didn’t have to spend much time in the kitchen because I did most of the cooking in advance. After skiing both days, we were able to shower up and hit the town to walk around, shop, and hang out at the coffee shop.

MonkeysMainStreet

There were so many laughs and moments of true happiness last weekend. And even some tears as we packed up Knight to head home. Don and I have always felt a special connection to Stowe, and now we know the monkeys feel it too. They have already asked if the mountain will be open for April vacation. Oh, those monkeys! We will ski this weekend at Loon for the last time this season, then hang up our skis and pray that the snow here in Newburyport melts soon. As Sweet Pea said, “It’s almost hiking season!”

Shadow

Homemade Hummus

 Hummus

My monkeys have been gobbling up hummus since they were babies. Hummus is made of chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, and is super good for you. It’s so easy to make hummus and it’s a great way to save money. I make a batch every other week, sometimes once a week. That’s how easy it is!

When you make something yourself, you know exactly what you’re eating. Most store-bought hummus is made with canola oil (read why I won’t eat it here). My humus recipe calls for extra virgin olive oil, which is way healthier. Whole food, unprocessed, plant-based ingredients make hummus a great addition to every diet. Hummus is naturally gluten free and vegan. It’s so good for you that you could eat it every day!

Why is hummus good for you? Wait until you see this list! It’s anti-inflammatory, lowers cholesterol, high in fiber, full of protein, loaded with vitamins and minerals, improves digestion, and aids heart health. Plus chickpeas may help reduce your risk of cancer. If nothing else, I’ll eat lots of hummus for that.

Sweet Pea had an allergic reaction to a store-bought hummus (that we had been eating for years) shortly after she developed her peanut allergy. That’s when I started making homemade hummus. I don’t use tahini because it’s made of ground sesame seeds, which are closely linked to peanuts and could have caused the reaction. I’d rather keep Sweet Pea safe than risk ending up in the ER so we avoid sesame.  If you have food allergies in your house, you know that homemade is always best. 

I’ve tried several hummus recipes and this one is our favorite. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, and my biggest tip is this: do not waste time removing the skin on the chickpeas. Sweet Pea and I did that once — never again! It really doesn’t affect the texture enough to waste 20 minutes de-skinning chickpeas.

Bean and Sweet Pea don’t like hummus with fresh garlic. We use organic garlic powder instead of fresh cloves to make hummus. Same flavor, less bite. I buy these chickpeas. The cans are BPA free and the chickpeas are organic: win-win. If you haven’t ordered my favorite lemon squeezer, now is the time! I squeeze a whole lemon right into the blender, easy peasy.  

This recipe is for a basic, homemade hummus.  You can get creative once you try it out.  We love to add one whole roasted red pepper sometimes to mix it up, like in the hummus plate below (my lunch today). It may not look filling, but raw veggies smothered in hummus really fills you up! 

HummusPlate

Homemade Hummus
Serves 10
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Total Time
10 min
Total Time
10 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 cans chickpeas, drained
  2. 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  3. 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  4. 2/3 cup filtered water
  5. 1 teaspoon sea salt
  6. 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Instructions
  1. Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor.
  2. Blend or puree until very smooth, adding extra water or olive oil one tablespoon at a time if the mixture is too sticky.
  3. When serving crack some himalayan pink salt on top, or add a dash of cayenne for a kick.
Adapted from Pinch of Yum
Adapted from Pinch of Yum
Under the Monkey Bars http://underthemonkeybars.com/

Note: You can make homemade hummus in a food processor or a high speed blender. The hummus will be smoother in a high speed blender, but still taste fantastic in a good ol’ food processor, which I was making hummus with until Don and the monkeys gave me a Vitamix for Christmas. BEST GIFT EVER. Just sayin.

And if you’re not already convinced that you should be eating more hummus…check this out, ladies!  Chickpeas contain magnesium, manganese, and vitamin B6 which help to reduce PMS symptoms. Thanks to  Dr Axe for that health tip. You learn something new every day, right?

Cómelo todo, amigos!