January 29, 2007

Che? Syrah?

Wine is sunlight captured in water" - Galileo Galelei

Their story's actually not all that uncommon on the surface. A couple of Silicon Valley technical types searching for a deeper meaning bag the cubicle jungle to pursue a passion for viticulture. But the Ciolinos' story -- as they told it during a cozy winemaker dinner at Nibblers -- their story captured my heart as surely as their Syrah had captured my attention.

Perhaps it's a feeling of kinship with Vincent, whose family came from the old country to Chicago seeking opportunity for their children. When he speaks of Dago Red with Sunday dinner, conversations half in Italian, half in English and summer afternoons spent at Wrigley Field rooting for the Cubs, I can relate (although my Colonial American mother was the baseball fan in the family). And I admire the way he and his family incorporate traditional old-world values into their new-world wines.

Perhaps it's Lise, and the way she's channeled the very thirst for knowledge and drive to excel that likely built her successful Silicon Valley career into creating some of the most unique wines to come out of California's Dry Creek Valley, and marketing them to like minded restaurants and wine shops across the country.

Perhaps it's the shared Ciolinos' commitment to producing world-class wines while respecting the land from which it's produced, to live their lives and run their business as good stewards of that land, using organic and biodynamic principles to produce wine with character while protecting the environment in which the grapes grow.

Perhaps it's Paolo, who has his mother's eyes, his father's smile, and an insatiable curiosity -- a wide eyed wonder and sweet intensity that's also present in the wine that shares his name...

Regardless, your heroine's made room between the steady stock of Zinfandel and Merlot in her wine collection for a sensational new world wine produced old-world style: Montemaggiore's 2003 Paolo's Vineyard Syrah. A worthy contribution to this month's Wine Blogging Wednesday hosted by WineCast celebrating New World Syrah/Shiraz.

Paolo's Vineyard Syrah brings new meaning to the phrase food-friendly -- this wine truly plays well with others. Its complex, velvet fruitiness pairs beautifully with red meats and poultry -- and works equally well with buttery salmon and sablefish. Strong hints of blackberry and chocolate give way to subtle vanilla undertones, making it an excellent accompaniment to hearty winter vegetables, extravagant chocolate desserts, perfect with a loaf of bread and a hunk of artisan cheese.

Montemaggiore Winery
2355 West Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448 | 707.433.9499

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January 28, 2007

Celebrating Nutella!

Nutella and I share a very special relationship*.

No. No. NO! it's different from my relationships with Ben & Jerry, Jose and the others.

It's a deeper connection than the burning desire to bury a spoon deep within the jar, spin it around, extract it slowly and lose myself in the velvety luxury of a naked dollop of rich chocolatey goodness. It's more significant than that Zen feeling of spreading its smooth silkiness across the freshest bakery croissant, savoring the moment the two blend into rich buttery chocolate heaven across my tongue.*

You see, Dear Reader, Nutella and I share a similar genealogy, the same last name. In 1946, my immigrant grandfather had left the coal mines behind, spending most of his adult life employed by the Illinois Central Railroad. A half world away in the town of Alba Italy, my grandfather's namesake (and given the geography, likely a distant cousin, though we've never taken the time to prove it) invented a bread-spread of cocoa and hazelnut and then built a company to produce and market it. Sixty years later, Pietro Ferrero's grandchildren remain at the helm of an international organization employing over 16,000 people and still espousing his founding principles: using the highest quality ingredients and state-of-the-art technology to create unique confections and make them accessible to consumers.

Nutella debuted in the United States in the early 1960's; I came on the scene a few years later. We've kind of grown up together.

So when a couple of creative Italian bloggers declared Tuesday February 6 as World Nutella Day, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to participate.

So I pulled a jar of Nutella from my pantry. (There is ALWAYS a jar of Nutella in my pantry.) A bottle of frangelico. A couple of sheets of puff pastry from the freezer (I still have a bit of leftover puff pastry). A block of cream cheese from the refrigerator. The bananas and pears that arrived in this week's CSA box. And I began to experiment. I'm actually pretty proud of myself -- the product of my mish-mash of ingredients definitely doesn't suck.*

Banana Hazelnut Tarts

2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 bananas, sliced crosswise into 1/4 - 1/2" disks
1/4 cup frangelico
4 oz (give or take) block cream cheese
1/2 cup (give or take) Nutella
2 sheets of puff pastry

Combine butter and brown sugar in a skillet, stirring over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Add banana slices, and saute until they begin to soften and brown. Carefully add the frangelico. Continue to cook until frangelico warms and sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400.

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and Nutella, blending until smooth (I used a hand mixer.)

Coat a twelve-cup muffin tin with your lubricant of choice* (I used nonstick cooking spray, canola oil or butter would also work)

Roll out puff pastry and cut into 4 inch squares. Spread 1 to 1.5 tablespoons Nutella mixture in the center of each square. Carefully move squares to muffin tin. Top Nutella mixture with a spoon or two of the bananas.

(Since I've been feeling guilty about the mini tart shells I bought last fall and have only used once, I used them instead of the muffin tins. Either would work fine.)

Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes or until puff pastry "puffs" and browns slightly. (when making this again I'll probably blind bake the shells first).

Cool for a few minutes before plating. Serve with frangelico sauce drizzled over the pastry.

*I can't WAIT to see the Google searches that land people on THIS post.

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January 27, 2007

Searching for an old friend...

...we made a new one.

You could say John and I have an obsession with sushi. And you really wouldn't be exaggerating. It's probably the one pilgrimage we make MORE often than Nibblers.

John's fixation started before we met. Mine began early in our relationship with my first visit to Koji's. A four-table hole in the wall off the beaten path on the San Francisco peninsula, Koji's was a true neighborhood find -- and the perfect place to discover a new food addiction.

Over the years we've probably sampled hundreds of sushi bars and found a few favorites along the way. But because John was one of Koji's first customers and Koji was my first real sushi experience, we managed to make our way back to 37th Avenue no matter from wherever we were in the bay.

Since Koji closed his doors in 2004, a dedicated group of his customers have kept in touch and we've followed him around the bay to the very best of our ability. So before he celebrates his first anniversary with Hiro Steak and Sushi in Brentwood we decided to visit and check out his newest digs.

A little Internet research reveals that Hiro's is the brainchild of owner Mark Bradford and executive chef Hiro Ogawa, that it will take us a little longer than an hour to get there, that for a Japanese restaurant the wine list is impressive, and that the descriptions of the menu items have us salivating over the keyboard.

I find the ambiance at Hiro's fascinating. A lot of restaurants try to offer something for everyone -- and lose their own identity in the process. Part piano lounge, part sushi bar, part robata grill, part 5-star restaurant -- Hiros' manages to do it all, and do it well. From our seats at one end of the sushi bar, we're close enough to the lounge to observe the quiet and friendly efficiency of the bar staff and enjoy the young Michael Bolton lookalike and his unique style on the piano before turning our attention to the menu before us.

It's immediately clear that we've missed Koji -- but quickly becomes equally clear that he's made a mark on the menu. Hiro himself offers us an amuse of seared tuna in a creamy wasabi sauce before taking our order. We enjoy ocean-fresh nigiri, a crisp-tender tempura roll (with just a bit too much greenery for John), and a creamy California roll that evoked memories of late nights on 37th Avenue for both of us. One of the most interesting dishes we chose was the edamame -- prepared "three ways" -- some simply sprinkled with salt, some seasoned with garlic, and a third section in an sweet sesame dressing. Fascinating in it's complex simplicity, I'm convinced this preparation would convert many soy-phobes to the other side.

One of the things that turns a good sushi bar experience into a great one for us is our interaction with the sushi chef, our host for the evening. No matter how fresh the fish, the experience lacks luster if we can't find a connection with the chef. Hiro was the consummate host -- attentive and friendly without hovering or 'up-selling.' He let us set the pace, paid attention to our selections and our reaction to his creations, offering an occasional recommendation based on his observations. When John ordered uni to finish, we explained that while I appreciate good uni, I usually find a whole nigiri overwhelmingly rich. In response, Hiro offered me the smallest of spoonfuls to sample.

In the end, John mustered the courage to ask after Koji. Sadly, we managed to visit on the last Friday of Koji's vacation in Japan -- he's scheduled to return on Monday and Hiro promised to tell him we'd stopped in. So we'll need to make the drive out Vasco Road again in February to reconnect with an old friend and a new one.

Hiro's Steak & Sushi - 613 First St., Brentwood - 925.634.3129

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January 26, 2007

Butterfly Effect - the Written Word

Bet you all figured I'd given up on this whole Butterfly Effect meme, huh?

Ye of little faith.

Part four sends me to explore my culinary bookshelf in search of the volume that changed everything...

Flash back to 1989. Your heroine is a twenty-something soon-to-be-senior in college. She's survived a year of dorm food without donning the famous freshman fifteen. She's spent the last few years as a pampered sorority girl, with an on-site chef, houseboys to serve Monday night formal dinners -- her only foray into the kitchen a once-a-month obligation to empty the dishwasher and refill the milk dispensers.

It's a bright late September afternoon (especially by central Oregon standards) full of the promise of things to come. Your heroine's unloaded the car, hung the curtains, made the bed, stocked the bathroom with enough haircare products to open a salon and rearranged the furniture in the small sitting room. She now stands with her roommate Susie surveying no-mans-land, the large-by-campus-apartment-standards kitchen they'll share for the next 9 months.

Susie owns a set of ginsu knives her grandmother bought on late-night-TV. Your heroine's a little better off -- she's got a toaster oven and a popcorn popper from the dorm days and a set of mis-matched fraternity-labeled beer steins, souvenirs from a sampling from a series of invitations to that social rite of passage in the collegiate Greek community: the barn dance.


Houston, we have a problem. Neither our budgets nor our waistlines are going to withstand a semester of Track Town delivery or burgers and beer at Rennie's Landing.

Solution? Pick up the phone and call dad. In less than a week, his food loving friends have outfitted our apartment with an eclectic collection of hand-me-downs. A 1950's vintage "Mix Master" mixer. Two mix-and-match collections of cookware: a 6 piece nonstick set and 4 copper-bottom sauce pots. Dented but functional cookie sheets and muffin tins.

But I digress. The purpose of this side-trip to kitchens past is to divulge the cookbook that most influenced my culinary journey. That cookbook arrived two weeks after my desperate call for help: a housewarming gift from my godparents.

The package was heavier than its packaging would indicate. I eagerly tore the tape off the box, scattering Styrofoam peanuts along the counter to reveal a book wrapped in Ruth's trademark wrapping: the Sunday comics. "Julia Child," the cover pronounced. "The Way to Cook."

"Julia Child?" I pondered? "That funny French chef from PBS"? I set the book aside for later; I had more textbooks than I could handle without one for the kitchen.

Fortunately, it wasn't long before I found myself wanting to impress another young man with food. Our typical fare of ramen noodles with a side salad wouldn't cut it. Neither would hamburgers on the hand-me-down hibachi. And I'd already done the chocolate chip cookie thing.

I wanted something adult, something unforgettable. {Get your mind out of the gutter}

I was thinking ... steak. With some kind of sauce. Real vegetables on the side. The kind that came from the produce aisle, not the freezer. Like a restaurant. As I pondered the menu, I knew I was in over my head. But wait. Where's that Julia book? She's got to have a recipe...

As I paged through the meat section, I found myself transfixed, and transformed. Julia had more than a recipe. She had advice. How to purchase good quality meat. How to work with various cuts. Which was best sauteed, roasted, grilled. And why. Questions to ask the butcher. A couple of "master recipes" with dozens of variations. In the span of a half dozen pages, this woman told me what to do, showed me how to do it, and offered me the inspiration and the courage to stray from the printed recipe, making the menu truly my own.

I was hooked.

In that moment and over the course of the next several years, Julia changed the way I approached food preparation. Rather than heading to the grocery with a rigid list, I started shopping for the freshest ingredients and those that appealed to me in the moment. I began using recipes as guidelines rather than commandments. With a stocked pantry (which Julia taught me how to do), I was confident I'd find a way to put interesting meals together. I usually succeeded. And when I failed, I learned something in the process. When I wanted to try something new there was Julia, ready to show me the way. Puff pastry. Pie crust. Exotic seafood and vegetables.

Thanks Julia. We've come a long way together. And I've eaten well along the journey.

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January 25, 2007

Coming back up for air...

What is it with this winter cold/flu that just won't let up? I've been sick so long, I'd forgotten what 'well' felt like! The irony that I started this coughing-sneezing-stuffy head journey three days after I got my flu shot is not lost on me.

But enough with the whining. Hang in there, my friends. I'm on the road to recovery and I'll be back soon with tales of recipes and restaurants and a fabulous field trip to San Francisco's Fancy Food Fair...

January 10, 2007

Thirteen sheets of leftover puff pastry

Those of you who've been around a while remember our open house in November. A pre-Thanksgiving Saturday afternoon we turn off the heat, fire up the grill, the oven, and virtually every other heat-producing appliance in the kitchen and prepare a finger-food feast for nearly 100 of our closest friends.

In our sixth year, we've worked most of the kinks out of the menu and found ourselves a rhythm that works for us. This year we worked with our contacts in the restaurant business to procure some of the staples. Cheeses. Mini phyllo shells. Puff pastry. In restaurant sized packages. Which brings us to my second edition of the Thursday thirteen:

Thirteen creative uses for leftover puff pastry...

  1. Breakfast just doesn't get any better than this. Based on how yummy this was with commercial pastry, I can't wait to try it using her recipe for pamesan pastry.
  2. Sweet tooth? Check out Food Network's Puff Pastry, Apple & Raisin Strudel. Assemble it Saturday night and toss it in the freezer overnight for a no-fuss addition to your Sunday brunch menu.
  3. Tonight's cover recipe comes to us from The Wednesday Chef. I love leeks. I love goat cheese and mushrooms. Fennel's a bit of a stretch, but I've learned to trust Luisa. If she says I'll like something, I usually do. A wedge of Leek, Mushroom and Goat Cheese Tart with a cup of mushroom soup was exactly the antidote for a long cold winter day.
  4. Puff pastry plus a few extra ingredients and you have yourself a sensational weekend lunch. I'm particularly fond of my friend Haalo's Potato & Onion Tart -- and I don't LIKE anchovies. (Rocket? That's arugula in this part of the world).
  5. Having friends over on Friday night? Brie kisses and a bottle of wine are a great way to start the weekend off right. A mini muffin tin, a sheet or two of puff pastry, a small wheel of brie and a jar of your favorite jam/jelly/preserves is all you need. Prepare your muffin tin with the nonstick spray of your choice. Cut the pastry into 2-inch squares, putting a square into each muffin form. Top with a 1/2 teaspoon of brie and a 1/4 teaspoon of the preserves. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool briefly before you enjoy -- the contents get molten.
  6. Don't want to work that hard? Forget the slicing and stuffing -- top your brie with several tablespoons of the preserves. Wrap it in puff pastry, brush with beaten egg wash and bake at 400 for 25 minutes. Allow to cool 20 minutes before serving.
  7. Last week's Salmon Fillet in Puff Pastry with Citrus Beurre Blanc was absolutely sensational, and not nearly as much effort as I'd initially expected.
  8. For a hearty appetizer, try my Sassy Savory Tarts, inspired by Australia's answer to Martha Stewart - Donna Hay. I like to serve these over balsamic-dressed spring greens.
  9. Or Bron's Caramalized Onion, Goat Cheese & Fig Tarts -- pornography on a plate.
  10. Chocolate/Puff Pastry/Cream Cheese cookies feel like cheating, they're so simple. But they are consistently one of my most popular contributions to cookie exchange parties.
  11. Another yummy entree using mostly kitchen staples: Spinach-Stuffed Chicken in Puff Pastry. Again, unless I'm serving serious company, I tend to skip the decorative extras. It tastes just as good without "decorative stems and leaves."
  12. These Mini Savoury Tarts aren't nearly as fussy as they look. They taste amazing and they make a gorgeous plate. I'm particularly fond of the mushroom ones.
  13. This variation on soft breadsticks pleases even my finicky "he won't eat that, it's not chicken" nephew.

Links to other Thursday Thirteens!

1. (leave your link in comments, I'’ll add you here!)

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. ItÂ’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

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January 08, 2007

Coaxing you out of your comfort zone

It's come to my attention that January 8-12 is "De-Lurking Week." Devised by Stephanie of Paper Napkin and now in its third year, this is is your golden opportunity to let me know you're out there.

How? Leave a comment. Let me know a little something about you. Where you're from. What brought you here. Or for the dozen or so of you who are semi-regular readers, what brings you back.

Come on, I don't bite.

(unless you know the code word and the secret handshake.)

January 06, 2007

On creating a monster...

We haven't packed the pasta roller up from Monday's adventures yet. (And yes, I *do* intend to tell the story behind Monday's adventure... as soon as I'm through with this round of system testing at work).

And we're trying to limit "mindless takeout" this year -- opening the refrigerator rather than the phone book or the drive-through -- and redeploying that portion of our food budget to the newly created vacation fund.

So when John suggested he'd make fresh pasta for dinner after a Saturday of non-stop errand-running, I didn't need a lot of convincing.

Because pesto appealed to both of us we made a quick stop at the grocery store, figuring we'd pick something up out of the deli case.

Hmm. $7.50 for half a cup of pesto. And that's the store brand.

A quick trip down the produce aisle reveals we can get a bunch of fresh basil for $1.59. I've got leftover pine nuts from my holiday baking. And what self-respecting Italian American doesn't have garlic or olive oil in her pantry?!?!

When we got home, John made the pasta. While the dough rested, he whipped up the pesto. My sole contributions to dinner were helping with the pasta roller (a three-hand job) and grilling up a bit of sausage.

Yeah, I could get used to this.

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January 03, 2007

Thursday Thirteen

I discovered this Thursday 13 thing through the Holidailies Portal and I thought I'd try it out this week. Who knows, it may end up being a regular weekly feature...

You can learn a lot about a person from what they eat. So my introductory contribution to Thursday Thirteen centers around thirteen things I tasted this week. Gourmet things. Homemade things. Extravagant things. Simple things. Good things.

  1. I picked up a couple of gorgeous salmon fillets at Trader Joes, and we still have a ton of leftover puff pastry in the freezer from November's open house. Gotta love Google. We had a romantic dinner at home Friday night: Salmon Fillet in Puff Pastry with Citrus Beurre Blanc and a salad of butter lettuce and avocado. The salmon dish is a *whole* lot less fussy if you dispense with the fishy shapes and just cut the pastry in squares.
  2. Saturday's dinner was tasty, if not quite as successful. We were set to make steamed mussels with Belgian frites. We braved the mandoline to slice the potatoes. We broke out the new deep fryer that Santa gave me. Read the instructions carefully. Plunged the potatoes into the oil as instructed and --- spent the next hour cleaning oil off the counters, the cabinets, the floor, the ceiling. And being very thankful that neither of us were hurt in the process. So I head to the closest fast food joint for takeout fries while John steams the mussels. We settle down with our makeshift meal and a bottle of Belgian brew -- and John breaks out in hives. Which return periodically over the course of the weekend -- as near as we can tell, some odd allergic reaction to the mussels.
  3. Nothing says "lazy Sunday afternoon" like French toast with preserves and powdered sugar and a marathon of Top Chef episodes queued in the Tivo. The perfect way to say goodbye to 2006.
  4. New Year's Eve. Farewell 2006, hello 2007. What better way to celebrate than with good food in the company of good friends? We closed the year with our friends at Nibblers. I selected the Champagne tasting menu: five courses of celebratory cuisine paired with sparkling wines from around the globe. John stayed closer to home culinarily -- going with a taste of Napa. Because we believe the joy of food is largely in sharing it, we ended up experiencing a ten-course tasting menu.
  5. Regular readers are already aware of Monday's adventures with ravioli, detailed here.
  6. While we assembled the aforementioned ravioli we snacked on mushroom & goat cheese tarltettes hot from the oven and a selection of cheeses and crackers.
  7. St Benoit yogurt can be rather difficult to find in my part of the bay area. So when I saw it last week at Whole Foods I eagerly stocked up. And I've been enjoying a crock of honey flavored yogurt for breakfast all week.
  8. Sometimes a simple seasonal Satsuma Mandarin orange or two IS the perfect ending to an evening meal.
  9. I'm indulging in an obsession with broccoli this winter. Steamed. Roasted with lemon. Sauteed. Stir fried. Creamed in soup. I can't get enough of it.
  10. Panera's new Turkey Caprese sandwich is a great antidote to lunch-on-the-go, and even at over 600 calories, it *feels* more virtuous than the drive-thru.
  11. After a morning full of mind-numbing meetings, a little sashimi salad is just the ticket to decompression. Buttery hamachi. Firm, flavorful tuna. Soft unctuous salmon. Shredded lettuce & sweet rice. A splash of soy sauce and a small dollop of wasabi. Better than Calgon. Less risky than a liquid lunch...
  12. Christmas Eve with John's family several of us were still medicating that stubborn winter cold and weren't sure we wanted to indulge in champagne. Enter Trader Joes' Blood Orange Soda. Which now has a permanent home in my refrigerator. The perfect foil to everything from a four course Mexican holiday menu to a sandwich and kettle chips.
  13. And lucky thirteen - Reed's Ginger-flavored ice cream -- Sweet but not sickly-so -- this is a great grown-up ice cream.

And now for the Links to other Thursday Thirteens!

Take the time to follow the links below... you might discover some great new blogs!
  1. Lisa shares 13 ideas for tackling insomnia on her Scenic Road to Joy.
  2. Laura expands our reading list: 13 titles to add you your Amazon wish list.
  3. Taking "obsession" to a new level, Nathalie agonizes over 13 frustrations planning a vacation.
  4. Sanni's recently remodeled her blog, and shares the 13 add-ons she enjoys the most in her new space.
  5. Janie (who shares my obsession with Top Chef) introduces us to 13 famous people she's met. Sadly, none of them is Harold Dieterle. :)
  6. For those of you who need to catch a nap in your cubicle, Raggedy provides 13 ready-made excuses if you get busted.
  7. Get an iPod for Christmas? Looking for upbeat music as you trudge back to the gym in January? Samantha's got 13 songs guaranteed to get your heart pumping.
  8. Thomma Lyn shares 13 stupid words and phrases that drive her nuts. A neat list. I'm not sure I could stop at 13. :)
  9. Caylynn offers her 13 favorite leisure activities. What resonates with me about her list is the balance she achieves through a variety of hobbies that fuel her mind, her body and her spirit.
  10. Aimee offers 13 more ecclectic musical selections for new iPod owners.
  11. In a fascinating psychological study, Christie ponders 13 of the oddest Google searches that have led readers to her blog.
  12. Michelle explores the magical world of strange baby names.
  13. Suburban Mum seeks balance through her insightful resolutions for a happy & fulfilling 2007.
  14. Pam posts an ecclectic list of online reading material sure to keep you busy as you web surf through the lunch hour.
  15. Crystal shares her goals for 2007.
  16. In an ode to my favorite pastime -- procrastination, teachergirl ponders the things she should have gotten done.
  17. My maternal ancestry is Pennsylvania Dutch, so I read Gem's list of superstitions with great interest.
  18. Moma's World's list defies verbal explanation -- you'll just have to go see for yourself.
  19. You could be here. If you're participating in the January 4 Thursday 13, leave your link in comments, I'll add you here!

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. ItÂ’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

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January 02, 2007

January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

Wishing all my blog friends best wishes for a happy, healthy and tasty 2007!