Rachael Ray has these spectacular food adventures on her show, $40 A Day. Well, it's the holidays. There's plenty of food to be cooked and recipes to be concocted for those chefs-in-training who just love to experiment.
We all know someone like this. (Never mention any names.) Instead of following the recipe, these "CITs" add, delete and over- or undercook potential palate-pleasers. I must admit I've done this a few times. (OK, more than a few times.)
But this year, I promised myself it would be different. Maybe, just maybe, I would try not to special order at restaurants or get that Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo gleam in my eye when I start to cook something in the kitchen.
My first stop was Gourmet Again to hang out with Michael Hackerman, Andy Hoffman and Toby Hoffman, the GA family. I had this bright idea that I would have a small dinner party sometime during the holiday, and I wanted to create a menu that will leave my guests in awe and disbelief.
Understand, I must have total mental preparation when attempting to cook for anyone besides myself. Two or more people, and we're talking several days to get a head start. I have to think about what I'm going to cook — and, of course, the visual presentation.
OK, let's go over to Michael. His command post is the meat counter. All the meats were fresh and had great color. The fish and seafood were impeccable. I thought the guys from The Deadliest Catch had just delivered the salmon straight from the boat. The cuts were precise; the color, a rich pink.
"We have everything that a full-sized grocery store has," Andy said.
This is absolutely true. A full-service deli. A restaurant grill. Produce, bakery, dairy aisles and more.
"You have to give the customers what they want. We aim to please and bring in items that the customers like," he said.
After walking around the store to snap pictures of beautiful food and displays, I finally mustered enough nerve to ask Andy what I should cook for my holiday party of eight. And, no, this isn't a Food Network celeb reality "cook-off." I emphasized that it had to be easy, quick, delicious and look beautiful for me to pull this off like Giada De Laurentiis or Nigella Lawson.
"I recommend marinated beef tenderloin, using our signature store marinade, along with stuffed portabella mushrooms and eggplant parmesan roulette," Andy said.
Wow, this sounded fabulous: simple, easy and quick. There was something for the meat lovers and the vegetarians. This required I buy the raw ingredients and cook. OK, I wasn't so sure about this. At this rate, everyone would have a noodles dish from Noodles & Company, which I love.
"Well what about catering?" I asked.
Gourmet Again caters too, he replied: "We cook what you want and supply the paper products, beverages, desserts and everything. We also create the entire theme and set-up too."
Customers can create a menu and theme for holiday entertaining — traditional, vegetarian or a menu mash-up. You choose your own recipe adventure.
"And if you want to make someone's holiday really special, Gourmet Again sells baskets as well," Toby said.
Why not add some pate', goat brie, crackers, fruit and a gift card for the main dish? Now that's a gift.
Before I pulled myself away from this fabulous market, boulangerie and café, Michael and Andy let me know a bit more about the store and purchasing choices.
"All of the seafood is brought in fresh every day, and the lamb and veal are local products. We always choose higher-quality and better-cut meats, poultry and seafood," Michael said.
"Also, we make our own croutons and have the best caesar salad in the area," said Andy.
Michael also gave me a bit of store history. "We're a family-owned business and have been around for 30 years. My uncle, Stanley Pressman, was the original owner … Now my Dad owns it."
Finally, I snapped a few last-minute pictures, and it was time to go. But I must say this about Gourmet Again: The store is beautiful, the service is great and the owners and the staff know their customers. GA is one of those neighborhood markets where customer service and quality come first — not a big-box grocer where the customers feel like they're part of a shopping matrix — blip, blip, boooppp!
You'll get not only a great selection of gourmet groceries and fresh produce, but also locally grown foods.
So whether you're fixing the traditional turkey holiday dinner with all the trimmings or going out on the limb and remixing your menu, Gourmet Again has whatever you need to make your holiday dining experience special and memorable. I love this place.
Thank you, Andy, Michael and Toby for letting me hang out with you. And I can't forget the "Deli A-Team" (Billy, Herbie and Redin) and Danyae Andrews (the store's all-around grocer).
I braved the winter chill and made my way to the Seven Mile Market, which recently relocated. I had a gleam in my eyes again and thought maybe I'd add a few extra things to the holiday dinner. My guests would shudder at this very idea — ha!
"Mixing things again … extras? Oh no!"
I hung out with Chaim Fishman, the manager. I wanted to know what the customers were doing for the holiday season. What's hot and what's not?
"We give people what they like," Chaim said.
He said the market sold a lot of potato pancakes during Hanukkah and caters throughout the holiday season.
"Most of our customers order deli platters. We prepare assortment meat platters (pastrami, corned beef, turkey), along with New York rye bread, pickles, olives, rolls and potato salad or cole slaw. This comes with sodas as well."
Seven Mile's fried chicken's a good bet, as are prepared platters for holiday parties, including fruit, seafood and a smoked salmon-and-dairy platter. The staff prepares everything to order and will deliver and set up the dinner spread.
"It's easier to order and set up as a buffet style with different platters rather than an entire dinner of entrees. This is what some of our customers prefer," Chaim said.
This is a minimalist's dream! No raw ingredients or cooking from scratch. This is like curb-side pick-up except it's garage-side delivery and set-up.
I checked out the store bakery, produce and deli departments. A chef-in-training could definitely lose her mind in this place!
Natural foods, colorful vegetables, fresh ingredients — move over, Paula Deen!
OK, I'm done. I've snapped pictures and made-up my mind about my holiday dinner.
Whether you're holiday-cooking GPS leads you to turkey, ham, stuffing, rolls and cranberry sauce or to several party platters set up with exceptional presentation, style and color, you have plenty of choices for your holiday meal plan in Pikesville.
Food is not only shared on the actual day of the holiday — but throughout the holiday season until New Year's Day.
So why not take a chance and do something new and mix the traditional with some new and exciting dishes and recipes? This could be the making of a new Food Network show. (OK, maybe not.) But you get my point.
Thank you, Chaim and Keith Campbell (produce manager)! Seven Mile is wonderful.
I'm off to the kitchen. Wish me luck. No snickering please.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Correction: In the original version of this column, Toby Hoffman's first name was spelled incorrectly. We regret the error.