The first thing Gail Greco thinks about when she gets up in the morning is what she's making for dinner that night. And when it's time to serve that dinner, she makes sure it's in a ceremonious way. "We light candles almost every night," says Greco. "It's a beautiful release of tension."
Greco, who divides her time between Sarasota and Maryland, has authored many books and hundreds of articles on cooking and decorating. She has written for, hosted and produced one of public television's most popular cooking shows, Country Inn Cooking with Gail Greco, and is considered an expert in the bed and breakfast industry.
But don't compare her to Martha Stewart. "I don't even think about perfectionism," says Greco. "I just want people to enjoy the experience and adventure of eating." That emphasis on enjoying rather than overachieving is even emblazoned on the walls of her new powder room in her Northern home on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, where she had an artist paint these words: "The butterfly counts not the months, but the moments, and he has enough time."
Greco began her career not as a domestic goddess but as a hard-hitting journalist who racked up national awards for her reporting on the drug trafficking trade in Miami. Her transition to documenting the nuances of entertaining began when she resigned a full-time newspaper post to see more of her husband, Tom, who was a nighttime editor at The New York Times.
"I wanted to start a free-lance career," says Greco. "But I hated the word 'free-lance,' because the work wasn't free. In order to support myself, I decided that I couldn't earn less than what I made reporting full-time." She achieved that goal by writing for as many as 45 different newspapers and magazines, from Golf Illustrated to The New York Times.
Her new schedule allowed more time for travel, and Greco soon discovered the bed and breakfast inns of America. "I said, 'Martha Stewart, move over.' These were the people who are really doing it, cooking, entertaining, keeping beautiful homes."
When Greco realized that little information had been published about this fast-growing sector of the hospitality industry, she wrote her first book, Secrets of Entertaining, a compilation of recipes and entertaining tips from the nation's bed and breakfasts. Since its publication in 1989, the book has gone through four editions. The most recent includes ideas from Greco as well.
In researching bed and breakfasts, Greco noticed that many were beginning to serve English-style teas, complete with sandwiches, scones and other traditional treats. That inspired her next book: Tea Time at the Inn. "In an age when a cookbook's shelf life is six month, this one is still in print," boasts Greco. Her follow-up, Great Cooking with Country Inn Chefs, was called one of 1992's top cookbooks by USA Today and was followed by a string of books on subjects from interior design to French toast.
Even before The Discovery Channel invited her to join their new cooking show, World Class Cuisine, which premiered in 1993 and is now showing in reruns, Greco was itching to make television her next step. "It was a perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate what I create and think about. To look my readers in the eye, so to speak, and be with them rather than off in a corner without them, which is what happens when you are a writer."
As writer and producer of World Class Cuisine, Greco had to design half-hour segments for locations all over the world, often without ever having seen them before. But what she didn't know, she quickly learned. "People ask me where I got my cooking prowess. I tell them I've gotten it on the road, literally cooking with these master chefs."
During one episode she filmed at the The Palace Bussaco in Melhada, Portugal, a former summer castle built by Portugal's King Charles I, the chef marched her and the film crew down to his wine cellar and produced bottles of wine for each of them from the years they were born.
"That changed the course of the already-filmed episode," she says. "The cameramen got out their cameras and I produced a segment on the spot showing the methods of wine-bottling that had been going on at the inn for centuries and were still being done in limited editions."
Eager to exercise even more control over her product, in 1995 she shopped her own TV show, Country Inn Cooking with Gail Greco, to various networks before finding a spot for it on Maryland public television. There she was able to write the scripts, select the chefs and serve as executive producer.
"Because it was a teaching medium, I had to stick to cooking education," says Greco. But her journalistic instincts told her that travel would increase her viewers' interest, so she took the show on the road, devising ingenious ways to incorporate her beloved inns. "My favorite was a sexy little Victorian in California that featured fabulous claw-foot bathtubs," she says. "I poured myself into one of them and filmed my recipe section right there in the tub."
During another trip to the White Oak Inn in Danville, Ohio, she moved the entire production outside to the hen house after experiencing firsthand the warmth of freshly laid chicken eggs.
Her clever pieces inspired a companion book and won County Inn Cooking a nomination from the James Beard Foundation for best TV food journalism. "I lost to Martin Yan, who did an incredible cooking special on China that year," she remembers.
But eventually Greco became a victim of her own success, waking up one day to the realization that she'd worked six years straight without a day off. This time, Tom was the one who resigned (by then he was editing IBM's in-house magazine).
Together they formed Greco-Roamin' Productions to manage her career and seek out further ventures for the two of them. Today, they specialize in interior home photography for builders and operate the official Internet Web site for Dupont. The PBS show ended its run in 1999, but airs in reruns. Meanwhile, proposals are in the pipeline for at least five more books from Gail.
All of this she accomplishes from offices in her homes in Maryland and Sarasota. "I really do believe we are all capable of creating the life we want for ourselves," Greco says. "And that takes work."
But she's all for short cuts and easy solutions. One of her favorite ways to dress up an appetizer table involves placing fresh oak leaf and red curly leaf lettuce (or other fancy greens) between layers of toasted pita triangles. "Just pour dressing over the top and garnish with colorful vegetables such as chili peppers," she says. "It makes a dramatic statement."
She also suggests serving liqueur cups of sorbet between courses. "This palate cleanser gives you a chance to regroup in the kitchen," she notes. The guests will enjoy their little intermezzo, and your absence while you prepare the next course will go unnoticed.
"My grandmother entertained until she was 86 years old," adds Greco. "It is the most precious thing we have in life. When you sit down with people, they shed their inhibitions and stresses. You have the joy of just looking at each other." People appreciate the pampering they receive going to someone else's home for dinner, brunch, even a stack of steaming pancakes, she says. "The idea is to have fun and enjoy each other's company in one of the greatest ways possible, and that is to eat together."
Dinner Party Do's
Entertaining advice from Greco.
Set the table first, even before you do the shopping. "Later on, you won't have time to," she says.
No time for a gourmet meal? Host a tea. Greco says it's less threatening than a complete dinner because the food preparation requires only cookies or small sandwiches. "The set-up is less time-consuming, so you really have time as the host to enjoy the event with your guests."
Make sure to include a utensil with every serving dish. (Greco will even attach a post-it note to a ladle ahead of time to make sure it finds the right plate.)
Toast correctly-and often. "Always toast," Greco urges. "Not only do you have to clink every glass, but you must look into each other's eyes. Otherwise, it's not authentic."
Need some quick and tasty dining additions? Here are two of Gail's favorite recipes.
Date and Nut Cakes with Orange Custard Sauce
Servings: 12 cakes
Easy to make and good for you, these trusty cakes also give the meal a gourmet flourish. To scald the milk, place in a small non-stick saucepan and heat on medium high until tiny bubbles form around the pan (about 180 degrees).
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup boiling water
1 cup chopped, pitted dates
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
4 egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
6 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups hot scalded milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Orange slivers or zest for garnish
Mint for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a small non-stick saucepan, mix the baking soda in the boiling water. Add the dates. Remove the mixture from the heat and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar, salt, eggs, and flour. Mix well. Add the date mixture and the walnuts. Beat until well-blended. Pour the batter 3/4 of the way into a 12-cup non-stick muffin pan. Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes clean. Let cake cool on racks.
While the cake cools, place the egg yolks in a small heavy-bottomed non-stick pan, and whisk just enough to blend. Add the orange zest, sugar, and salt. Slowly pour in the hot milk, stirring constantly. Cook over medium heat until the custard coats the back of a spoon; remove from the heat. (Do not boil or eggs will curdle.) Stir in the vanilla and strain into a bowl or pitcher. Cool to room temperature, then cover and chill; custard will thicken as it cools. Pour the custard over the top of the cakes. Top with orange slivers and mint.
Wine and Fruit Poached Pears with Brazil Nuts
Makes 6 servings
A romantic dessert of warmed pears with the heartfelt flavor of red wine is a soothing choice for ending almost any meal.
1 1/2 cups water or enough to cover the pears
1 cup dry red table wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup raspberry preserves
Zest from 1 lemon
6 medium Bartlett pears
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Brazil nuts
In a large saucepan combine the water with the wine, cinnamon stick, vanilla, raspberry preserves and lemon zest. Bring the liquid to a boil and cook over high heat for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, peel the pears, leaving the stems intact. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the pears to the pan and cover. Poach the pears for 15 minutes or until tender. Remove the pan from the heat and let the pears cool in the liquid, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or chilled with a little extra liquid spooned over the top; sprinkle with nutmeg and a sprinkling of the nuts.
You can find more information on Gail Greco's cookbooks by sending an e-mail to InnWordsAndPictures@juno.com.