Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Family Thanksgiving

You didn't know this but I've actually been in Texas for six of the last eight days. It's true! I didn't offer that information because we're still getting to know each other, you see. I need to first make sure you aren't attempting to rob my place when I leave town before I can fill you in on my every travel plan. Come on, I know you don't tell me everything.

In any case, I'm back from Texas now and boy did I get a lot accomplished. For one, Justin and I introduced our respective parents to each other for the first time and had Thanksgiving together as a new future family. I'll be honest, combining families for the holidays seemed like a daunting task. Most people hold on to some really strong traditional holiday memory, whether it's sourdough bread dressing vs. cornbread stuffing or pumpkin pie vs. pecan pie (I say why not both?) or watching the parade vs. the football game on TV, each family does the holidays a little bit differently. Since my parents were hosting, I worried that our family Thanksgiving wouldn't fulfill Justin's family as much as it did mine and that maybe our parents wouldn't have anything in common and a million other things that all seem silly now. Because you know what? After all the stressing about whether our parents would get along or whether his family would like the food or the state of Texas, the reality was that I didn't have a traditional Thanksgiving from memories past, I had a better one.

Our families hit it off, the weather was beautiful enough to take a Thanksgiving day boat ride on Lake Austin, the food was plentiful and delicious, the dads watched football together (and the Cowboys won!) and we ended the night stuffed and sobbing over a great but depressing movie. (The movie is called Sara's Key by the way, and it's beautiful but tragic and probably not the best Thanksgiving day flick.)



This Thanksgiving was a great combination of traditional and non-traditional and an overall positive step towards combining two amazing families. I'm very thankful for the efforts put forth by both families this year - My mom spending hours in the kitchen to get an amazing meal on the table, my dad preparing the boat for us, my sister baking the pies and Justin's parents flying from Michigan to spend the holidays with people they had never met.



There was so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and Justin and I truly felt that throughout our entire stay in Texas. Stay tuned for more trip highlights, including wedding dress shopping, more Texas eats and one amazing engagement party.

And this wouldn't be Taste Chaser if I didn't share a recipe. Since Justin and I arrived after my mom had already prepared most of the Thanksgiving feast, the only dish I was responsible for was the roasted cauliflower. We can thank Ina Garten for adding some veggies to our Thanksgiving plates. I will be making this simple but delicious recipe again for sure. You know I love me some roasted veggies!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Choosing a Venue - Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Admittedly, I had a few strikes against Firestone Vineyard in my head before we even reached the parking lot. Didn't some Bachelor contestant own this place? Were the photos on the website anything special? I honestly thought it would just be a pit stop between Sogno Del Fiore and the third venue we planned to visit, Gainey Vineyard. But Firestone was voted "Best Reception Area" by The Knot and I liked that they allowed receptions later than most wineries so I wanted to at least check it out. We arrived early for our appointment so we decided to split a tasting and familiarize ourselves with their wine offerings. If we're going to get married at a winery, we have to make sure we like their wines, right? The tasting room was bustling with activity and outside wasn't any different. Many people were picnicking on the lawns and I spotted at least three people who brought their dogs along so I took that as a good sign. Justin and I have debated back and forth about including our dogs in the wedding somehow and while we haven't made any decisions, it's nice to know that Firestone provides a dog-friendly atmosphere. We thoroughly enjoyed our tasting and then met with the winery's event coordinator for a tour of the facilities.

Pardon the paparazzi shots Justin got of me during the tour. As you can see, the photos of the raw space aren't anything all that special. But before we even saw any spaces, the event coordinator showed us some photo albums of past weddings on the property. Seeing the space all done up for an event, it started to make sense why so many brides voted for the venue. One of the photos was of a gorgeous outdoor lawn up on a hill overlooking the valley, with a big old oak tree positioned just perfectly for vows to take place underneath. The tree was a game-changer. I didn't even know Firestone had such a spot. When I pictured us having a wine country wedding, I pictured that lawn and that tree.

The lawn is surrounded by rows of vines and overlooks even more vineyards. Once we had seen the spot in person, we were pretty sold. Is it just me or is getting married under a tree supremely romantic? We were so excited about Firestone at that point that we put a date on hold immediately. As an event planner I couldn't get past the convenience of having exclusive access to the property on wedding day. If it were to rain (knock on wood) then our rental fee includes a number of indoor spaces. Firestone also has its own kitchen for caterers to use, as well as ample restrooms and parking. They even provide their own tables and chairs and of course, a discount on their wine.

A huge factor in deciding which wineries to visit as possible venues was event end time policy. Since all of our wedding guests will be traveling from out of town, we couldn't justify sending them home and to bed early in the night. If it were up to me, we'd party until 1 a.m., but most wineries I researched required you to end your reception at 10 p.m. Firestone was a bit of a compromise, but it was the latest reception end time I had seen besides Sogno Del Fiore, which didn't work out for other reasons (see part one). The pros outweighed the cons so much that we almost considered not even going to Gainey after that.

We did end up stopping by Gainey anyway and taking the photos above. Lo and behold, Gainey also had a beautiful oak tree but we just didn't have the same crush on it as we did with Firestone. Most likely because we knew our reception at Gainey would have to end early.

Overall we saw three beautiful spaces and any one of them would have been an amazing place for a wedding. But just like finding your perfect wedding dress, I would imagine (not there yet) when you know, you know. We considered the logistics but we also followed our hearts and now one big wedding to-do is checked off our list. Feels good to make progress!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Choosing a Venue - Part One

Ooo fun! My first real wedding planning post! Since I'm an event planner by trade, it's been interesting to see how my professional experience will translate into planning something much more personal than a work event. So far, it's proven helpful to have knowledge of event logistics when choosing a venue, but when it comes down to making decisions for such an important occasion, it's still going to be tough no matter who you are or what you do for a living.

The first order of wedding business for Justin and me was to set a date as quickly as possible. We learned that the second you get engaged you are pressed for a date by everyone. While it's perfectly acceptable to dodge the questions until you feel ready, we were eager to know the date and location of our wedding as well. We agreed that a California wedding would make the most sense since we'd have our pick of beautiful locations within driving distance, allowing for the hands-on approach to the planning process that I was looking for. We also liked the idea of a destination wedding, bringing only close family and friends to experience the beauty of Southern California with us on our special day. Since we got engaged in Santa Barbara, we decided to start looking there. Using many online resources specifically for Santa Barbara weddings, I was able to narrow down my options to a few great contenders for venues. Browsing real weddings on and Style Me Pretty California reinforced my desires for an intimate, romantic and slightly rustic vineyard wedding. Once I fell in love with that feel for our wedding, the location became very clear to me. Enter Santa Ynez Valley.

These photos were taken during the first trip Justin and I ever took "just the two of us". Our destination was Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez wine region just outside of Santa Barbara. Back then, we chose the location for our weekend getaway because it was only a two and a half hour drive from Los Angeles, because of the abundance of wineries for wine tasting and because hotels were more affordable compared to Santa Barbara. For many of those same reasons, we chose to look at three venues in that area for our wedding.

Within two weeks of getting engaged I had already browsed dozens of venues online and ruled many of them out for a number of reasons. Our most important factors to consider were availability, pricing, event end time policies and rental requirements. Since Justin's older brother is getting married in June of 2012 (both brothers will wed in the same year, isn't it sweet?) we knew our wedding would be after his. It was a struggle to determine a date while taking into consideration opinions from family members as well as our desire for a shorter engagement. Once we settled on a time frame I called around ten venues to feel them out and ultimately made appointments to visit three in person.

Venue One

I found Sogno Del Fiore through the blog, where they raved about the location and hospitality from the owners of this beautiful property. Speaking with owner Liz Fiore over the phone, I felt her warmth and compassion immediately. She sounded as excited about my engagement as someone who'd known me for years and kindly set me up with a viewing appointment that weekend. When Justin and I arrived she greeted us herself and gave us a tour of the property.

Sogno Del Fiore had the winery feel I was looking for, but isn't actually a working winery from what I understand. They grow vines on the property but are known for their wine club, which involves recommending and sharing wine from other wineries to their club members at a discounted price. I fell in love with the property, specifically the pool, envisioning candles in glass jars lining it at night for a romantic touch. Another perk to this venue was the flexibility of the raw space and working directly with the property's owners as opposed to the event planners that working wineries hire to coordinate their weddings. Unfortunately, the rawness of the space is also why I didn't end up selecting this venue. The event planner in me noticed that there was no kitchen for caterers to use, no parking for guests, only two restrooms, no tables and chairs, no indoor space in case of inclement weather, etc. With a larger budget kitchens, restrooms, tables and chairs can be rented and a shuttle service can be hired to bring guests, but for my budget these were items that I could see adding up quickly.

I was bummed to come to this conclusion because I know Liz would have been wonderful to work with. Meeting with her, you really get the sense that she cares about your wedding in particular, whereas larger wineries have weddings every weekend of the year. Liz was available, open and hard-working. She and her husband have transformed their property into something really beautiful and I think anyone would be lucky to have their wedding there.

While Sogno Del Fiore wasn't "the one" for Justin and me, fear not. My next post will cover the other two venues we visited and reveal why we chose the one we did.

Of course we did a little wine tasting while we were among the vines. Would be wrong not to.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween Happenings

Halloween wasn't huge in my house growing up. My mom would make us costumes and send us trick or treating with the rest of the kids, but I don't recall any Halloween decor other than a few pumpkins at the front door. Oppositely, Justin's family went all out every year with coffins in the yard. I think this explains why our apartment turns into a haunted house/horror show at Justin's hands each Halloween. I feel like I need to step up my game to appear festive enough to live there. Yes, that's a life-sized Michael Myers behind me. See what I mean?

Other than dressing as Cruella de Vil, most of my festiveness this year came in the form of creating Halloween snacks. I have been wanting to make this double chocolate tart I saw in Bon Appetit ever since I laid eyes on it. I didn't even own a tart pan at that time so I went out and bought one immediately. This precious tart pan then sat in my cabinet untouched for months. It was pretty pathetic. It needed to be used. I decided to turn the fancy tart from the Bon Appetit recipe into something a little more casual so I could finally use my pan and have a dessert to serve at our Halloween party.

The tart itself is really easy to make if you have a food processor to grind your cookies for the crust. I haven't purchased Oreos in probably five years and this experience made me remember why. You can't sneak just one! Three Oreos were gobbled before I threw enough of them for the crust in the food processor and reserved the rest to crumble on top.

I pressed the cookie and butter mixture into the tart pan and savored the flavor of my fingers when I was done. Butter and chocolate covered fingers = snack. Then you simply pop the pan in the oven for about ten minutes. I left mine for the 15 minutes recommended in the recipe and the crust had a very slight browned flavor on the edges. I would cut down the time in the oven in the future. Once the crust is baked you'll need to practice your self control and let it cool completely before you prepare the filling. Your kitchen will smell heavenly but you're still hours away from eating anything. Torture!

To make the filling, heat some heavy cream in a saucepan and pour over the chopped chocolate in a bowl. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and then pour onto your prepared crust and smooth the top with a spatula.

The only chocolate I could find at my grocery store was semi-sweet and I was paranoid that it was too bitter so I added a tiny bit of sugar to the melted chocolate, which is why mine doesn't look completely smooth in the pan (texture was fine after freezing). From there you just pop that bad boy in the freezer for a few hours or overnight. About ten minutes before serving at our Halloween party this weekend I pulled the glorious tart out of the freezer to let it thaw before covering the top with crushed Oreos (to resemble dirt) and gummy worms.

I had a lot of fun coming up with a way to turn this chocolatey tart into something quirky enough for a costume party. But how did it taste, you ask? Well rich, for one. Serious chocolate lovers will swoon. As for the rest of us, it's definitely an indulgence. Justin surprised me by taking down two pieces of the leftovers the day after Halloween, and I'd like to point out that he normally can't even finish a Chipotle burrito when he's famished, let alone a richly sweet treat in the middle of the afternoon. Now that I own a trusty tart pan, I anticipate many more tarts, both sweet and savory, in our future.

And yes, there is an eyeball in the vegetable platter. Don't even ask...