It’s never easy to get away when you have mouths to feed and people to care for, but it seems to me if you leave them with heaps of food, they notice you being gone a little less.
I didn’t win the Saveur award or the free trip to the award dinner in Las Vegas that went with it, but as a finalist I was invited. So I snagged a ticket for the short flight and went – to meet and celebrate a crazy talented group of food and drink bloggers, and to express my gratitude to the editors at Saveur for noticing the little garden to which I tend here online.
At midnight the night before I left, I piled a big hunk of beef in the slow cooker with onions, garlic, oregano, and other herbs. At noon the next day I raked it with two forks into juicy, tender shredded beef. I figured by the time they figure out how to enjoy it all (in tortillas, on toasted buns, mixed in pasta sauce or soup), I’d be back.
It felt odd, after having flown through Las Vegas so many times, to walk out of the airport for once. It’s a cartoonish place – a Statue of Liberty, an Eiffel Tower, a great pyramid, all reimagined with bling – and I never lost the feeling that I was in Grand Central Station, with crowds of people constantly flowing by in all directions.
But the people I met were genuinely warm and wonderful. We came from all over the United States, plus Australia, Italy, England and Canada. There were food industry professionals, writers, photographers and graphic designers, and also musicians, actors, lawyers and college students. But we connected immediately, with the ease and laughter of kindred spirits.
The fantastic team at Saveur put together a fun and toothsome program for us, going behind the scenes through the Bellagio kitchens, then donning aprons for food and cocktail making.
We began with a tour of the confectionary kitchens at the Bellagio, like Willy Wonka’s factory except the chefs all had charming French accents.
A layer of chocolate over soft ganache centers makes them pretty, but it also extends their shelf life.
See that horse? It’s SOLID CHOCOLATE.
In making pate de fruits, a fruit jelly candy, the chef demonstrated this refractometer, a nifty device that measures sugar content in a substance. Wine and beer makers use these too.
Pouring into the jelly molds…and is that really chocolate on tap?
Confection making is separated in the hot room (for cooking, melting, etc) and the cold room (for storage). This is a table in the cold room, crowded with whimsical molded creations.
Fortunately there was plenty of chocolate for tasting. But first, photographs.
We also went behind the scenes at Jasmine, Bellagio’s Cantonese restaurant, where we observed three chefs making dim sum dumplings. The bunny-shaped har gao (shrimp dumplings) were ridiculously cute.
I’d never seen this technique for making dumpling wrappers. Instead of using a rolling pin, this chef uses the broad side of a cleaver to press out the dough. He oils it once, presses down with the weight of his body and turns a half cirlce, then oils the cleaver again and leans in to press the other half. And he does it so fast, it’s hard to even see what’s happening.
The har gao wrapper is made from a wheat starch, which is very low in gluten. You couldn’t use this technique with regular flour – the dough would bounce right back.
The second chef made siu mai, a shrimp and pork dumpling made in a squat cylinder shape. These dumplings were made with a round wonton wrapper, which is made of a combination of wheat and barley flour.
The third chef made char siu bao, a fluffy sweet dough wrapped around a Chinese barbecue pork filling. This is a yeasted dough that is rolled the regular way, with a small rolling pin.
Most of the dim sum specialties are steamed, as ovens were historically uncommon in China. But in addition to the steamed dumplings, the dim sum sampler we tasted had fried shrimp balls as well as dan tat, baked egg custard tarts, which came to Hong Kong in the 1940s via the nearby Portuguese colony of Macau.
Later in the day we reconvened at Bellagio’s Tuscany test kitchen for a hands-on cooking demonstration.
I’m a total nerd, so I sat up front. Here’s a close-up view of the executive chef of the Bellagio, Edmund Wong, who oversees a score of food outlets encompassing 900 cooks. The scale of the operation is staggering.
We made meatballs. This is lovely Maureen, who won the best regional blog award and features fresh Lebanese cooking as well as food from her home state, Michigan, on her wonderful site.
Our table won the meatball contest, and we celebrated during the cocktail-making activity that followed. Here’s Maureen again, and Cheryl (best writing winner), Prairie Rose (best cocktail blog), Marcella (best new blog), Robin (best wine/beer blog), Sarah (best family cooking blog) and Naz (finalist for both best regional and best new). Love this crew, and their inspiring blogs.
After the awards dinner, I shadowed Robin on her hunt for craft beers in Vegas. There were none to speak of at the Bellagio, but Robin hit pay dirt at The Pub at the Monte Carlo hotel, which had 130 beers on tap.
Lisa at the Pub customized sampler flights of beer for us. I’m a completely boring water drinker 99% of the time (prefer to eat my calories than drink them, plus I’m compulsively frugal), so I didn’t have much guidance to give.
I laughed, feeling like a finicky four-year-old, when Lisa brought me mostly-sweet selections, but they were very good (a light Belgian white called Blanche de Bruxelle, a fantastic hard cider from Angry Orchard, a lovely fruity beer from Timmermans and the Pub’s own private label pale ale). I also loved tasting the broader variety of Robin’s flight, one of which looked and tasted like a Starbucks brew, black and near-burnt.
Robin and Lisa geeked out over craft breweries, and afterward I had to look up half the words they spoke. Here’s my Beer Terms for Dummies:
- Malty = sweet
- Hoppy = bitter
- Sessionable = low alcohol (less than 5%); comfortable for pounding back over a good long while (session)
- IPA = India pale ale, a strong, hoppy golden ale; a style very popular among craft brewers; and, if you must know, the super-dark ales of England didn’t feel right in the heat of India, and it was thought that the strong alcohol and hop content would help preserve the brew over its long colonial voyage
I now know infinitely more about beer than a week ago. My brother-in-law Chris will be so proud of me.
Vegas was super fun. But so cheeseball.
Now back to my midnight meat. Some big chunks of chuck roast.
Add onions, garlic and bay leaf.
A pile of dried herbs, a good dose of salt and pepper, and a bit of sugar.
Mix with water and add.
Also a bit of vinegar. The hot version of this beef calls for a jar of peperoncini peppers with the pickling juice, which you could use instead of the vinegar. But my kids, alas, don’t like spicy.
Turn on the slow cooker.
And in a few hours it’s easily fork-shreddable. If it’s not, just wait a while longer. Trust me, the magic will happen.
When the beef is cooked low and slow enough, shredding a potful is no work at all.
You can eat this for days, any way you like. On a bun with melted Provolone. Chicago-style, on a hoagie with hot giardiniera. In a taco with some good salsa and shredded cabbage. In a quick soup with whatever veggies you have around. In a pasta sauce with tomatoes, wine and garlic.
You get the idea. Make a big pot, and tiptoe away. By the time they’re done, you’ll be back.
Getaway Beef (slow cooker shredded beef)
This giant pot of tender, shredded meat is just the ticket when you need to host a crowd, feed your family for days, or stock a refrigerator for a friend in need. Use it in tacos, sandwiches, pasta sauce, soup or all of the above.
- 4-5 pound chuck roast trimmed
- 6-8 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 tablespoon garlic powder)
- 1-2 onions, sliced (or 1-2 tablespoons onion powder)
- 4 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons dried parsley
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt (2 teaspoons table salt)
- 2 teaspoons basil
- 2 teaspoons pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup vinegar (distilled white or apple cider)
- 2 3/4 cup water
Optional (any or all)
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire
- 1/2 teaspoon Montreal steak seasoning
- Rinse meat and trim off any large areas of fat. Place meat in slow cooker and sprinkle onions and garlic on top.
- Mix spices with water and vinegar and pour over beef. Cook until meat shreds easily with a fork, 10-12 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high. Remove bay leaves. Taste and adjust seasonings (salt, pepper, optional adds) as you like.
- You can substitute other liquids for some or all of the water, such as beer, wine or beef broth. Note that if you use broth, you should also reduce the amount of salt in the recipe.
- The spicy version of this calls for a 16-ounce jar of Italian peperoncini peppers, including the picking liquid. If you do this, omit the vinegar in the recipe.
- Once you refrigerate the meat, it becomes very easy before reheating to remove some excess fat solidified on top.
- This is a great dish to make on a Sunday night, and you can use it during the week in tacos, sandwiches, soups or even on top a hearty salad.
- If you want to eat Chicago-style, pile this on a hoagie roll with some hot giardiniera.
- You can also cook this in a Dutch oven (heavy covered pot) on the stovetop or in the oven. On stovetop, heat first, cover pot, and turn low to simmer. Cooking time will be roughly equivalent to the slow cooker on high (4-5 hours), but check the liquid level occasionally and add more water if it gets too low. You can also transfer the hot covered pot to the oven and bake it at a low temperature (250-325 degrees F will work; cooking time will vary depending on temperature).
Here’s the link to a printable version.
so lovely meeting you, even if it was brief!! that was a FUN 48 hours, huh!?? xoxo
yes, way too brief! but my mental snapshot of you and molly in your royal blue dresses is an adorable memory from the trip. =) hopefully we get another chance another time…xo!
Lilian, meeting you was a highlight for me. Thanks for your warmth and for your voice in the world. If I’m ever in your neck of the woods, I’m calling you! Hugs,
yes please! you were a highlight for me as well. we are simpatico on food philosophy (use what you have), life philosophy (gratitude) and stage of life (kids!). kismet that you and your sweet husband were the first people i met in vegas. i will be reading you for doses of sarah until we meet again.
I know I said it already, but I just had to say it again — it was so, so very lovely to meet you, Lilian! You’re such a joy to talk to and I was so glad that we were seated near each other, though sorry that we didn’t get to speak more. Bowl #2 and I were reminiscing about how nice it was to talk to you and he said it so well — you have the greatest “happy energy” 🙂 Thank you so much for such a lovely time! P.S. “So cheeseball” made me lol — and it’s SO TRUE! And P.P.S. You are just the best for making that scrumptious-looking beef for your fam before you left! It looks so ridiculously tender that I’m drooling.
ms cynthia – you are a major cutie pie, as is bowl #2! you guys inspire me with your fresh energy – those days of being in my 20s in nyc were intense but great years that i miss. enjoy yours! and come see me in the sf bay area when you need to get away. =)
I absolutely LOVE this! Lovely to meet you, however brief. I have a feeling our friendships will all live on through the magic of social media and each other’s blogs. So happy to have met you! xx
hey p rose – very fun meeting you. loved how you went for it with the meatball making – and too hilarious that we won. great that we get to stay in touch online. my new resolution: more cocktails. cheers!
I’m so happy to hear you had such a great time (not that I thought you wouldn’t)! Looks like they put on a super fun event. It’s absolutely so crazy to see the mass volume those casinos cover!!! xoxo
hi jamie – no kidding, the bellagio that visitors see is huge, and it’s just as vast behind the scenes. but they do an amazing job there, the confectionery was so impressive (fresh mint in mint truffles, and they make 30 flavors of gelato in house). didn’t make me want to try it at home, though! i would make a mess of it. but watching it was like magic.
Lilian, Drew and I loved meeting you and spending time with you. Especially, bonding over pizza at 10pm! Sorry I missed out on the beer education. Miss you and our winning meatball crew! Thanks for this lovely post.
naz! i loved so much hanging out with you and drew. ducking out of yellowtail for secret pizza is my funniest memory from the trip. and drew was so convincing – a bravura performance. hope we get to hang out sometime when you guys come up our way! or hopefully we get our crew down to LA one of these days. my kids would eat up your adorable girls (in a good way). xoxo!
Carol at Wild Goose Tea
I am glad that you went. It sounds like a super event to meet up with kindred souls. And if nothing else to get out of Dodge for a while.
hi carol – yes, it was a blogger geek-out! which was fun, because i don’t know too many in dodge. =)
I’m SO impressed that you snagged a photo of that older lady with the bikini-clad Vegas girls with all the feathers. They were shooing *everyone* away, but you did it! (I do see her hand extended in your shot, though, which made me laugh.)
I’m so glad you came on the trip. Two meet-ups in a month… we’re some lucky gals!
hi cheryl – yes, the show girls weren’t too happy with me. =P so fun to see you again, and it was a great bonus to meet your lovely husband. i love how proud he is of you!
Love the pics in this recap. It really captured the event. So great meeting you!
kim and phil – so exciting that you are practically neighbors…we need to hang! i would love to check out the bay area food cart scene with the pros. =)