Wednesday, December 31, 2008
As I started thinking about the year in review, I first thought that maybe 2008 wasn't such a great year, as my health has been an issue of late. But really, it seems such a small price to pay for all of the incredible blessings I've had this year. I got married, bought a house, traveled, made new friends and rekindled relationships with old ones - just to name a few. So RA be darned, I'm going to count 2008 as a great year. Here's hoping the joy continues in 2009!
Best wishes to all for a safe, healthy and happy New Year. See you next week!
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
We soldiered on to find another spot for a decent cup of coffee and a light breakfast. That's when I remembered the Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters store on Union Street in Easthampton. (They actually have 4 locations in Western MA - Shelburne, Shelburne Falls, Northampton and Easthampton.) We'd been to the Shelburne Falls shop and enjoyed it, so we figured we'd give this shop a try.
The Easthampton shop reminded me a lot of the Shelburne Falls shop. Very rustic, yet artsy, with coffee beans and paraphernalia everywhere:
My coffee was very good - not too sweet or rich like some blended drinks can be. My bagel was a little overdone, but the cream cheese was excellent. It had just the right amount of jalapenos to give me a little kick, but not scorch my tongue. Mr. ValleyWriter enjoyed his coffee and breakfast sandwich, though he said it was a little strange that they'd only used egg whites in the breakfast sandwich. (I told him maybe they were trying to help him eat healthier, but then he pointed out that the sausage patty kind of canceled any healthy attempts out, so who knows!?)
All-in-all, I'd say Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters is a good alternative for a quick bite and a great cup of coffee. But it still doesn't replace my favorite doughnut shop! (I promise to share the identity and review that shop the next time we visit and I have my camera with me.)
Monday, December 29, 2008
Creamy Slow Cooker Mac & Cheese
1 1/2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 c. shredded monterey jack cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. milk
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
8 oz. macaroni noodles (uncooked)
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, optional
Combine 1 c. sharp cheddar and 1 c. monterey jack in a small bowl and set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, evaporated milk, salt, salt, pepper and spices. Stir in uncooked noodles. Stir in the 2 c. of cheese you mixed together. If desired, gently fold in diced tomatoes.
Lightly grease the crock of your slow cooker with oil or cooking spray.
Pour in macaroni mixture.
Top with remaining 1/2 c. sharp cheddar cheese.
Cover and cook on low for 3-4 hours until macaroni is fully cooked and liquid is thick and creamy.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Happy Holidays to you all!
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Friday, December 19, 2008
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Spinach & Sun-Dried Tomato Stuffed Chicken Breast
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 c. cooked, chopped spinach
1/4 c. sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 c. ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
additional salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray casserole dish with oil or non-stick cooking spray.
Cut a pocket into each of the chicken breasts (basically cut through the center lengthwise, but leave 1 of the long sides uncut).
Mix spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta, red pepper flakes and 1/2 tsp. salt in a small bowl. Stuff 1/2 of mixture into each chicken breast.
Rub tops of chicken breasts with a small amount of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked.
I served with a side of green beans for a healthy, nutritious dinner. Yum!
Monday, December 15, 2008
According to the all mighty keeper of the potluck sign-up sheet (aka my mom), my charge this year was to bring "a vegetable." However, squash, potatoes and green bean casserole were all already taken. So my task was to figure out another veggie I could bring and keep warm for a couple of hours in a slow cooker.
At first I thought carrots, but then I figured they'd get mushy sitting in the slow cooker for hours. And corn didn't really seem like a holiday vegetable. Mr. valleywriter suggested sweet potato pie, which I didn't quite think counted as a vegetable (can it be a veggie if it has a crust?).
But I ran with the basic idea and ended making a sweet potato casserole. This recipe nearly filled my 5 quart slow cooker, so unless you're feeding an Irish Catholic family like mine, you'll probably want to cut it at least in half (if not more).
Sweet Potato Casserole
about 5 lbs. sweet potatoes (these may be labeled "yams" at the grocery store, but in all likelihood, they're really sweet potatoes; real yams are rarely sold in the U.S.)
2/3 c. butter, melted
1/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 c. milk
1 c. pecans, chopped
2/3 c. brown sugar
4 Tbsp. flour
3 Tbsp. butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Scrub sweet potatoes, dry and prick each several times with a fork. Place on ungreased baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes until potatoes give when you squeeze them. Let sweet potatoes cool until you can easily handle them. Peel and discard the skin.
Cut peeled sweet potatoes into chunks and mash. (If you want, you can do this the day before and refrigerate the cooked, mashed sweet potatoes until the next day.)
In a large mixing bowl, beat mashed sweet potatoes, 2/3 c. butter, 1/4 c. white sugar and 1/4 c. brown sugar until well mixed. Beat in eggs and milk. Transfer to slow cooker.
In a separate bowl, mix 2/3 c. brown sugar, flour and 3 Tbsp. butter. Toss in pecans and mix to coat. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.
Put the cover on your slow cooker and cook on high for 3-4 hours.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
First off, it's important to note that you need to plan your visit to The Stables with care. If you're going on a Saturday or Sunday and the colleges nearby (UMass Amherst, Amherst College & Hampshire College) are still in session, you'd better plan to be there by 8:30 or so, or be willing to wait in line. When you first walk inside, there's a long counter with probably 15 or so seats and then a small dining room to the left. The lines after 9am on the weekends often stretch the full length of the counter (with the counter seats all taken) and sometimes even out the door. The other thing to note is that The Stables is one of the few "cash only" holdouts in our ever increasingly plastic-friendly economy.
So now that you've visited the ATM and arrived before 8:30, you're ready to sit down and enjoy a bottomless cup of New England Coffee (always yummy!). The menu choices are extensive - from your basic eggs & toast to French toast and pancakes to interesting "scramble" concoctions with home fries, breakfast meats and cheese. Mr. valleywriter and I both like the "Farmer Brown," which comes with 2 eggs any style, 2 pieces of bacon, 2 sausage and 2 dinner-plate sized pancakes. It's a HUGE breakfast for about $6 - can't beat that!
My favorite part of any breakfast at The Stables is the buttermilk pancakes. These pancakes are the best I've ever had. They're just a little crispy on the outside edges and soft and wonderful on the inside. I could eat them plain - no butter or syrup - but I usually do add the syrup because it's such a nice treat. The plain buttermilk pancakes are great, but you can also get them with blueberries, apples, chocolate chips and more. When I'm in the mood for dessert for breakfast, the chocolate chip pancakes are my go-to order.
But it's not just the food here that's "down home." The waitresses have all been around for years and it really feels like a family. They're sweet, caring and very friendly. While I know the restaurant business has its challenges and you don't always want to be there, these ladies make it seem like they're happy to be there. I truly believe that positive attitudes are pervasive, so breakfast at The Stables always leaves me in a good mood (and with a very full belly!).
Friday, December 12, 2008
Mr. valleywriter was much more excited about the prospect of cookies than of shoes, so he tore into the box while I got dinner ready. After some shuffling around, he pulled out a pack of 2 cookies. At first I was a little disappointed with the company that they used such a huge box for 2 cookies. But then I saw a label inside the box that explained they ship in 1 box (that's recyclable) with lots of all-natural, biodegradable packing peanuts made from cornstarch in order to avoid doing the typical inner box/outer box that most other companies do. They also use a beautiful blue tissue paper packaging that's made from 75% post-consumer recycled materials.
OK - so they're forgiven for the big box. And they get kudos for the beautiful blue colors of the box & tissue - it almost made me feel like I was opening a gift from that other "little blue box" store. So on to the cookies. I received 2 Organica Ginger Cookies made with 100% organic ingredients (flour, egg, spices, etc.). These big beauties were topped with sugar and looked absolutely delectable:
But I've been fooled by delicious looking food before - the real test is the taste. And boy oh boy, these ginger cookies did not disappoint! They were soft and chewy and nicely spiced. They tasted like fresh homemade cookies and to Mr. valleywriter's delight, there wasn't a hint of that "health-food" taste to be found (you know the one!).
We quickly gobbled up the 2 cookies we were sent while dinner was cooking (ahh... the joys of being a grown-up - no one to yell at you about ruining your appetite before dinner). I was so impressed, I hopped online to see what else they sell at Organica Deluxe. I was impressed to see the wide range of products, from beautiful, organically-grown fresh roses to organic truffles and wines to artisan crafted platters and bowls. Right now they have free ground shipping (use the code FREESHIP at checkout) on a ton of products, making this site a great choice for eco-friendly holiday shopping.
And one last note, not only did FoodBuzz & Organica Deluxe end up sending Mr. valleywriter and I a neat little early holiday gift, they also inadvertently send one for the kitties, too. Turns out the all-natural packing peanuts are a great kitten toy:
And since they're all natural, I didn't even have to worry about Piper running around with one in her mouth, which is a nice change from usual things she tries to take off with (headphones, buttons, etc.).
So from the whole valleywriter family - thanks FoodBuzz & Organica Deluxe!
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Never fear! I was a Girl Scout (I even got the Gold Award - the equivalent of Eagle Scout), and we know our s'mores, so I just came up with these flame-free s'mores. I used mini marshmallows and chocolate chips because I had some in the cupboard, but the typical large marshmallows and chocolate bars would work, too.
Flame-free S'mores (for 1)
1 full graham cracker
1 Tbsp. chocolate chips
8 mini marshmallows
Break the graham cracker in half into 2 squares. Put one half on a microwave-safe plate and top with chocolate chips:Microwave on high for about 30 seconds. (Chips won't look very melted, but they are - don't worry!) Top chips with marshmallows:
Microwave on high for another 5-10 seconds. (Watch carefully and if the marshmallows start to puff a lot, take it out.) Top with remaining graham cracker half and press down lightly until chocolate and marshmallows just starts to come out the sides:Eat quickly before your husband comes in the kitchen to see what you're making... oh wait, maybe that was just me :-)
I have to say, while they are lacking that unique charred campfire flavor, these are still pretty darn good. For my next one (and yes, there will be a next one - probably as soon as I finish this post), I think I'll try spreading peanut butter on one side. Mmm... peanut butter, chocolate and marshmallows - how could you go wrong?!
Since we have been following the pattern of the seasons, I'm convinced that summer is up next. My weather forecast for the Valley calls for clouds giving way to sun and the temps climbing into the mid-70s. Get out your bathing suits! It's July in Christmas! :-)
Sunday, December 7, 2008
(Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size)
For the cookies:
1/4 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening (I use Crisco®, which has no trans fat)
1 c. white sugar
1/4 c. dark, unsulphured molasses
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
Sugar coating (for rolling cookies in before baking):
1/4 c. white sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. (If you don't have parchment paper, just use ungreased baking sheets.)
In a large bowl, beat butter and shortening. Beat in sugar until light and creamy. Add egg and molasses and beat until dough is a uniform color.
In a separate bowl, sift baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and cloves into flour. Add salt.
Add about 1/4 of the flour mixture into the butter mixture and stir (by hand) until thoroughly combined. Continue adding 1/4 of flour mixture at a time, thoroughly mixing with each addition until flour is fully incorporated. Dough will be very thick/heavy (you may need to incorporate the last of the flour with your hands):
Combine 1/4 c. white sugar and 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon and pour onto a plate.
Shape cookie dough into 1" balls and roll through cinnamon-sugar to coat. Place coated balls of dough 2" apart on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until tops are puffed up a little and have started to crack.
One last note: I know some people are opposed to using shortening, but that's what helps give these cookies their soft, chewy texture. As noted above, if trans fats are your concern, Crisco® brand is trans fat-free (at least the butter flavor). If you substitute all butter, the cookies should still turn out fine, they'll just spread out a little more and be a bit crisper.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
I combined the flavors I've discovered I like from those recipes to make this Dijon Marsala recipe. You have to start this recipe the night before by putting the pork in a marinade, so plan ahead. There's a few steps, but it's worth it. We had it tonight with some rice pilaf and mixed veggies. Delish!
Dijon Marsala Pork Tenderloin
Approx. 1 lb. pork tenderloin (the packages at the store usually have 2 tenderloins in them; I use just 1 for the 2 of us)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 c. soy sauce
1/3 c. Marsala wine
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
Dijon Marsala Sauce:
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. fat-free half and half
1/2 c. Marsala wine
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Combine the soy sauce, 1/3 c. Marsala wine and brown sugar. Pour over pork tenderloin and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 24. (I usually do it the night before, so it works out to about 18-20 hours.)
When ready to make dinner, take the tenderloin out of the refrigerator and let it rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use 1 Tbsp. olive oil to coat a 9"x13" casserole dish.
In a saute pan, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Place tenderloin into pan and quickly sear all sides just until the outside is gently browned (about 30 seconds per side). Put tenderloin into oiled casserole dish and save the pan you browned it in for later (for the sauce).
Bake the tenderloin at 350 for about 35-40 minutes, until internal temperature is 160 degrees (it will still be a little pink in the center, but that's OK!). About 25-30 minutes into the bake time, you'll want to start the sauce. Take your browning pan (drippings and all!), add 1 Tbsp. butter and melt over medium heat. Then add half-and-half, Marsala wine and Dijon mustard. Stir or whisk until well combined. Let the sauce come to a gentle simmer and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half.
When the tenderloin is finished baking, let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting into 1/2" slices. Then plate and drizzle Dijon Marsala sauce over the pork slices before serving.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Even if you don't want to buy a thing, this Yankee Candle store is worth a visit. I walked through tonight just to look at all the candles, cookware, specialty foods, home decor and Christmas ornaments they had. I also saw Santa with happy children on his lap, people making their own candles in the new Wax Works section and children making their own stuffed animals in the Paws-n-Claws workshop. I didn't buy a thing and I still enjoyed a good hour just walking around.
This is a definite must-visit Pioneer Valley attraction - even if you just drive by some night to see the lights. Take exit 24 off I-91 and go north on Routes 5 & 10 - you can't miss it and you won't regret it!
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Last night when I walked in, I was immediately impressed with the atmosphere. The walls were painted in warm, rich colors and the lighting was soft and intimate. The bar sits immediately at the top of the stairs, with the main dining room to the right and a smaller dining area to the left of the bar. We had a table in that smaller bar area, right in front of a cozy, warm fireplace.
We ordered drinks first, but since I'm on methotrexate for my RA (and therefore limited to about 1 drink every other week), I had to stick to the non-alcoholic options, which is always less fun. I was surprised to see, however, that they did actually list some non-alcoholic options on their cocktail menu. (My experience in the last 2 months since I've basically become a non-drinker is that bars and restaurants rarely seem to list non-alcoholic options, so you just kind of have to throw something out there and hope they have it.)
There were about 4 different "mocktails" to choose from and I went with the cranberry cooler, which was a mix of cranberry and lemon juices and sparkling water. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it turned out to taste kind of like watered down cranberry juice. Oh well - lesson learned for next time!
Once the rest of our group got there, the appetizer ordering began. Throughout the evening, the group sampled the Artisinal cheese plate, the mezze plate with flat bread, hummus and some pickled salads, an order of homemade french fries with truffle-infused mayonnaise, the pan-seared sea scallops with applewood bacon and the salad of the day, which was a bed of organic greens topped with beets and grapefruit.
I had thought we were just going out for drinks and wasn't particularly hungry, but I did have a few bites from the cheese and mezze plates, along with a bite of a pan-seared sea scallop, a dish the Blue Heron is well-known for (the recipe won them a feature in Bon Appetit®). Everything I tried was very good—attractively plated, well seasoned and downright tasty. The scallops were prepared perfectly, not a hint of sand or rubberiness (my biggest concern about trying scallop dishes) to be found.
My only complaint of the evening was the pushiness of our server. For fine dining, I expect the type of service that's more "waiting in the wings" than "in your face." I felt the server visited our table too often, interrupting conversations repeatedly and pushing more food and drinks on us when clearly no one was interested. I felt the server also pushed us to order larger quantities of food that we needed. For example, when a few people wanted to share an order of the fries with truffle mayonnaise, the server said 1 plate would never be enough. They persisted and when the order came out, it was huge! I would guess there was probably a good 4 cups worth of fries on the plate.
I never condemn a restaurant or a server based on just 1 experience (unless it's a catastrophic experience), so the Blue Heron would definitely be on my list of places to try again. I think it would be well-suited for a special, romantic occasion like our anniversary or Valentine's Day or just a really special date. One caveat is that you have to be ready and willing to spend some coin here. With a couple of rounds of drinks for 8 people and 8 appetizers, the bill came to over $250; and when I glanced at the entree menu, it looked like most options were in the high-teens to low-twenties. Nonetheless, the attention to detail in the atmosphere, plate presentation and food preparation even in just the appetizers makes me think a meal here would truly be special.
Monday, December 1, 2008
White Chocolate Chip Craisin® Cookies
(Makes 2 dozen)
1 stick (1/2 c.) butter, softened
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
3/4 Tbsp. brandy
3/4 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. white chocolate chips
1 c. Craisins®
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar and white sugar until smooth. Add egg, brandy and vanilla extract. Beat well.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour and baking soda.
Add the flour and baking soda to the creamed sugar mixture. Beat on low to medium speed until fully mixed.
Stir in white chocolate chips and Craisins®.
Drop dough by tablespoon fulls onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake 9-10 minutes until cookies are set but still a little doughy-looking in the middle. (Don't let them get too brown or they'll end up being really hard).
I thought these were pretty good, but maybe a little too sweet. I brought most of them to work and they seemed to go over well, but I think I might still try reducing the sugar to 1/3 c. light brown and 1/3 c. white next time.
Though, on second thought, these were pretty good with a bowl of vanilla ice cream, so maybe all I need is a glass of milk. Hmm.... think I'll have to go taste test some more! :-)