Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hard Hat Tour of the Elms Hotel and Spa

The view of the Elms from the back
Years ago, Steven and I went to The Elms hotel and spa for a weekend getaway. It was a bit musty and the food could have been better but we liked it.  I enjoyed the spa (so did Steven). We ate at the Wabash BBQ and it was great. After several more trips north, we ended buying a house on Crystal Lake as our weekend getaway. We continued to go to the Elms for cocktails and spa services. We imagined the Elms as it could be.

Apparently we weren't alone. Fast forward to the fall of 2011 when the Elms was purchased by Widewaters, Inc., which closed it down for a major ($17 million) renovation. The doors closed on November 1 and the fully rehabbed hotel is scheduled to open in April. It was sad to see it close but exciting to know that it was likely to re-open in better shape, both structurally and financially.

Over the winter we kept up with the rehab progress on Facebook.  Then one evening, while sipping wine at the Fence Stile Winery just outside of Excelsior Springs, we happened to meet a number of the artisans working on the construction, along with Kevin Snedden, the Spa Driector.  We ohhed and ahhed about the rehab, the history and the potential it represented. A few days later, Kevin invited us on a "hard hat" tour! Of course we jumped at the chance. Steven was thrilled to get an inside look at the history and architecture. I was focused on the important things: the food and the spa.

Pictures of the Damage

The Elms first opened in 1888. It burned to the ground in 1898.  It was rebuilt and re-opened in 1909. It burned down again in 1910.  The current building was started in early 1911 and opened in September of 1912.  Nearly a hundred years of continuous operation has taken something of a toll on the place.  I snapped a couple of pictures of the damage. It is amazing to see the extent of the wood rot. This is what they are working with. I'm surprised the rehab didn't take a couple of years.
Wood rot
And more wood rot
The picture below shows their attention to detail. They are piecing together the tile floor in the lobby where it had been ripped up during some previous (and less historically concerned) renovation. They had to order custom tiles from an up-state New York company that specializes in historical structures. One worker described it as "doing the same puzzle, over and over again". While he may feel like he is in Groundhog Day, the result should be amazing.
Working on the tile floor
The Spa

The new spa (and it's all new - they completely gutted the lower floor of the building) will be over 25,000 square feet.  It includes single and couples treatment rooms, hydrotherapy rooms, nail and hair facilities, a retail area, a swank lobby, a "quite space" where you await treatment and the the grotto.  Oh, the grotto!  The designers went all-out to create an experience.  I can't wait for it to open.  I'm hoping that Kevin and his team will need some guinea pigs to help them tune up prior to opening.

I am so insanely excited about the spa (and in particular the grotto) I can hardly stand it. I don't have pictures of the spa- it is not slated to open until May. You can go to the facebook page for the Elms (here) and see sketches. I predict that this spa is going to quickly become the best in the Kansas City region. Kevin Snedden, the Director of Spa services,  gave us the tour. He is so customer service oriented he oozes it. To hear him talk about the experience people can expect at the spa was amazing and refreshing. I don't know about you, but I have experienced the whole continuum -- from incredible service to dismal service. It doesn't matter how good the massage is if the checkout process is so annoying that it destroys the glow you got from the massage. Kevin gets this.

What I am most excited about is the grotto, an amazing modern take on the Roman bath experience which comes with any spa service. The grotto has a steam shower (my all time favorite), a dry sauna, a steam infused sauna, cold plunge shower, and a self-serve exfoliation area. You get to spend time in the grotto before and/or after your treatment. (I don't they plan to limit the amount of time -- though I don't think they will let me move in). The idea is to alternate between the different showers and saunas. They had me with the steam shower, the rest is just icing on the cake.

The Kitchen and Food

Speaking of cake... what about the food? The chef was one of the first things I researched (which should come as no surprise). I was delighted at what I found out. The Chef is Steven Duane Cameron. His website is here Steven Duane Cameron. In 2008 and 2009 he was a James Beard Best Chef for the Mid-Atlantic Region semifinalist. He focuses on locally sourced food. Those of you from Kansas City know that we have incredible local meat, produce, wine, beer, coffee, dairy, and honey. I am so glad that the Elms realizes how great our local farmers and food and beverage artisans are.

The kitchen

I have high hopes for the restaurant which is being completely redone. The main dining room has been gutted and is on its way to becoming a very classy new restaurant called "88 At The Elms".  The lower level combines dining space with a gorgeous new mahogany bar.  The upper level is becoming "The Upper 88" which can be dining space or reserved for special occasions.  They are even adding a second fireplace upstairs where you can have a glass of port after dinner.

Don't hold me to it, but my understanding is there is going to be a coffee shop and bakery where the gift shop used to be. The lobby bar is moving upstairs to become the library tavern. They also plan to debut a summer snack bar and casual dining space on the pool deck. More food.  Better food.  What's not to love?

I should be visiting the coffee shop weekly
Outside Pool

The pool should be filled and heated within a week of this blog posting. It is going to be awesome. An example of the attention to detail is the replacement of the (perpetually faded) painted Elms Hotel logo on the bottom of the pool with a tiled one. The pool renovation was extensive, requiring an excavation of the entire rim. According to rumor, the new heaters are powerful enough to keep the pool open from April through September.  The outdoor hot tub (which is open all year round) has also been given a complete overhaul and should soon be bubbling away.

Almost done with the pool

The tiled sign on the bottom of the pool

Inside Pool

Believe it or not, there is a large lap pool in the sub-basement. It was always rather cold but they made up for that with a hot tub (and a cold plunge tub). Steven and I used to swim laps and then sit int he hot tub. It was in desperate need of repair (see below). I can't wait to see the finished job.

Along with the total rehab of both pools and hot tubs, the new management decided to install two massive and very expensive industrial-strenght dehumidifiers. These beasts should go a long way toward eliminating the musty smell that was the perpetual bane of the old Elms. With no mildew and low-chlorine salt systems for the pools and hot tubs, the new Elms should be much more pleasant.
One of the indoor hot tubs

The lap pool, stripped of its trippy "Alice In Wonderland" decorations.
The Outside

I think the grounds of the Elms are beautiful. I enjoy walking them. The gazebo (below) is used for weddings. Steven and I slowed danced the gazebo one evening. Even without music it was magical. A new roof and new lighting add to the ambiance.

Moving on before I get sentimental.... They just finished building eight raised beds for herbs and veggies. I can't wait to see what they are going to grow.
Eight beautiful raised beds for fresh herbs and produce

The Rooms

It is a hotel, so I guess i should talk about the rooms. We did get a peak at the rooms.  The bathrooms are done in white. (See below). The bedrooms have custom built cabinetry behind the bed (it looks great). I don't think Steven got passed the cartridge coffee maker (in every room) and the Sony alarm clock with iPhone/iPod doc and a built in monitor. I was focused on the color scheme - I liked it and I liked the furniture. The rooms are not huge but that's fine with me. I plan to spend most of my time in the grotto's steam shower.

Marble and tile used in the bathrooms

I like this chair and the floor lamp
The cartlidge coffee machine with lots of beverage choices.

The bedside table with the Sony docking system


I know you are wondering-- what will we experience first-- the food or the spa. Well, that's easy- the restaurant is open before the spa so the restaurant. The spa won't be far behind. After our tour, Katie was being especially nice and kept mentioning that her birthday was coming up. Steven mentioned how long it had been since he had had a massage. I suspect we will be seeing more of The Elms in the very near future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Garden

Finished beds
I had some extra time this winter to research which is dangerous. I decided that the Sokol family needed to try square foot gardening. So this year for my birthday, I asked for raised beds. Steven and I built them in two days. Quite a bit of work. I was so optimistic at the beginning. You know how you are at the beginning of a project, you think this is going to be fun. By the end of the project you are hoping it will just be over. It was a lot like that.
What is square foot gardening you ask... Well, square foot gardening is a technique advocated by Mel Bartholomew. It has small raised beds, a special soil mix, and closely planted plants. The small beds are used so the soil is not walked on (and thus compacted). Grids are used sectioning the bed into squares and different plants are planted in each square (so you don't have rows of plants). The number of plants per square depends on  the type of plant. For instance one pepper or tomato plant per square but 9 plants per square for spinach.
Steven decided that he was going to include a irrigation system connected to our pump down at the lake. A flip of the switch and instant water. Maybe we will even put it on a timer.

The before picture
 Halfway through the project I wondered what I was thinking when I asked for this for my birthday. Why didn't I just ask for more kitchen stuff? I love kitchen stuff. Three fourths of the way through the project I was hoping for Monday to come soon so I could go to work and rest (like I am going to be able to move on Monday).

But I digress, back to the garden.

We made the raised beds out of untreated lumber "sealed" with boiled linseed oil. I so hope they last longer than a year. The soil was a mixture of soil, compost, peat moss, and capsulized gypsum. All and all it was a lot of work. But they look beautiful.
Mixing the dirt
Late Sunday night we finished all of the raised beds, filled them with dirt, and have the grids completed for 6 of the beds. We planted the seeds appropriate for this time of year and it was time to make dinner.  I am making an easy dinner of ham slice, potatoes, green beans, and asparagus to celebrate the season and the completed beds. I am also wondering why I am making dinner at all. But love the combination so it works.
Peach tree in bloom
What am I planting this year? With 8 raised beds and several side gardens the better question is what am I not planting. So here is the list (drum roll please): beets, peas, beans, potatoes, onions, arugula, lettuce, radicchio, radishes, turnips, parsnips, tomatoes, garlic, spinach, peppers, edamame, brussel sprouts, okra, cucumber, carrots, rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus, watermelon, pumpkin, dill, basil, oregano, chives, thyme, sorrel, cilantro, and mint.

We also have fruit trees and shrubs: blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, apple, peach, apricot (at least a year before we have fruit), and currant (at least one year away from fruit). I still want elderberries and cherries. I just can't figure out where to plant them. Oh - we also have walnut and pecan trees.

I am so looking forward to all of the wonderful stuff I am going to cook this spring and summer.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Boxty Irish Potato Pancakes

 A boxty is version of a potato pancake. It is a traditional Northern Ireland dish. Boxty is from the Gaelic word bac-stai bac means shelf and stai means fire. They were originally grilled over and open fire.  It is also known as Arán bocht tí’  which means "poor house bread." They were the food of the Irish peasants.
What is interesting about a boxty is it is made from both mashed and grated raw potatoes.  This gives the potato pancake a thicker cake-like texture.
These are rich and I hate to say it but a bit bland for our family's taste. The solution? We served them with a spicy breakfast sausage. The boxty was a perfect compliment to the sausage.

There is a famous Irish rhyme:
Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan, If you can't make boxty, you'll never get your man

The boxty on the griddle is a dough version of the boxty (the first recipe) and boxty in the pan is the batter version (the second recipe). The only difference between the two recipes is the amount of milk. The first recipe you have a bread like dough that is shaped. The second you have batter that is dropped into the pan. I preferred the second recipe. I thought it made a lighter boxty.

8 oz. (225 g) Mashed Potatoes
8 oz. (225 g) Grated Potatoes
2 Cups (250 g) of Flour
1 Tsp of Baking Powder
1 Tsp of Salt
1/4 Tsp of Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 Tbsp of Unsalted Butter, Melted
1/2 Cup (120 ml) of Milk

Wring out the liquid from the grated potatoes and combine with the mashed potatoes. Shift the dry ingredients together and add to the potatoes.
Mashed and grated potatoes
Add the melted butter and stir. Slowly add the milk until you have a pliable dough.

It works just like bread
Knead lightly on a floured surface and divide into a flat cake.

Flatten pancake- I forgot to make the cross mark
Make a cross on the cake (like you do for soda bread) and fry the cake in a bit of bacon grease, sausage grease, butter, or oil. Turn the cakes when the edges start to turn golden brown. Repeat with remaining dough.
Fried boxty
Boxty II

8 oz. (225 g) Mashed Potatoes
8 oz. (225 g) Grated Potatoes
2 Cups (250 g) of Flour
1 Tsp of Baking Powder
1 Tsp of Salt
1/4 Tsp of Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 Tbsp of Unsalted Butter, Melted
1 Cup (240 ml) of Milk

Wring out the liquid from the grated potatoes and combine with the mashed potatoes. Shift the dry ingredients together and add to the potatoes. Add the melted butter and stir. Add the milk until you have a pancake batter like consistency.

Just like pancake batter
Drop the batter into a frying pan and fry the cakes in a bit of bacon grease, sausage grease, butter, or oil. Turn the cakes when they start to turn golden brown on the edges.

 The bottom line: will I make this again? Yes, on a cold winter's day when we have a full day of skiing or sledding ahead of us, I will make this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Brining Corned Beef

Brining a brisket
Each year I make corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day (my birthday). I have had issues in the past with corned beef that is too fatty. So, this year I decided to brine my own corned beef. It takes 10 to 14 days so if you are going to brine your own corned beef, now is the time. I picked out a nice beef brisket and trimmed off the fat. For the beer, I used an Irish ale. I think a lager, brown ale, pilsner, or Scottish ale would pair nicely as well. I added red pepper flakes to the brine so my corned beef would have just a touch of spice. I hope that was not a mistake. (It wasn't)

6 Cups (1,440 ml) of Water
1 1/2 Cups (12 oz/360 ml) of Irish Ale
1 Cup (135 g) of Kosher Salt
1 Cup (218 g) of Light Brown Sugar
6 Cloves of Garlic
1 Tsp of Ground Ginger
1 Stick of Cinnamon, Broken into Pieces
1 Tbsp of Red Pepper Flakes
4 Tbsp of Pickling Spices
2 Bay Leaves
1-2 3 lbs (1.35 kg) Briskets, Trimmed of Fat

Place all of the ingredients except the ice and brisket in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Boiling the brining liquid
Dump several cups of ice into the brining liquid to reduce the heat.
Cooled brining liquid
Pour into a nonreactive container and add the brisket. Place a plate or bowl on top of the brisket so it is completely covered by the brine. Stir every couple of days. Allow to brine for 10 to 14 days.
Brining brisket to turn it into corned beef
The bottom line: will I do this again? Yes. It was better than store bought. It wasn't spicy at all. I cooked it in beer (see Corned Beef and Cabbage Cooked in Beer) This time I used an anchor steam clone that we brewed. The results were delicious. I am so glad that I brined two briskets. The briskets are going to have a grayish pink because artificial coloring was not added. That is normal.