Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So long 2008!

This is my last post of the year (and for a few days as I head out to ring in the New Year in style with jaunts to Rhode Island and Virginia).

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

Mmm.... Coffee....

Mr. ValleyWriter and I headed out this past Saturday to our one of our favorite Saturday morning breakfast haunts, only to find it closed! On the one hand, I was happy to see they were taking extra time around the holidays, hopefully to spend with family. On the other hand, I was sorely disappointed to miss out on their freshly made, warm doughnuts I'd been craving for a days.

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:

They have a wide variety of different coffees, blended coffee drinks, iced coffee drinks, tea and hot chocolate to choose from. That morning, they also had coffee cake, some muffins and croissants, as well as breakfast sandwiches. I ended up ordering a cafe vanilla (basically coffee topped with vanilla-flavored steamed milk) and a bagel with their homemade sun-dried tomato and jalapeno cream cheese. Mr. ValleyWriter went with their French Roast coffee and a bagel breakfast sandwich. The total came to $9.65, which is pretty comparable to the famous chain that starts with D, but a lot cheaper than the one that starts with S.

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

Chasing away the winter chill with yummy mac & cheese...

During the long, cold days of winter, I crave warm, comforting foods. But I don't always have a lot of time (or energy, thanks to my RA) to spend in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Enter the slow cooker. I love being able to throw in my ingredients, walk away for a few hours and come back to a fully cooked meal. Yesterday I tried making macaroni and cheese in the slow cooker for the first time and I was quite pleased with the results. The best part is - you don't even have to precook the macaroni - can't get much easier than that!

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

Merry Christmas!

Like many others, I'll be offline for the next few days enjoying the holiday with my family. Best wishes to all for a very happy, safe holiday!

Christmas Clipart

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cookie Blitz - Day #2

OK - I'm technically a day behind with this post, but I was so exhausted after yesterday (I think icing the 100th sugar cookie sent me over the edge), I just couldn't do it. But today I'm back to recount the remainder of the 2008 Cookie Blitz story.

On day #2, after shoveling the foot of snow we had from the last 2 storms off the deck, I set about finishing the last 2 kinds of cookies and icing the sugar cookies we made on day #1. First up was the baking. I made 3 batches (about 12 dozen) of my soft & chewy ginger cookies and 3 batches (about 14 dozen) of white chocolate chip Craisin® cookies.

Then I sat down to the monumental task of icing the sugar cookies. Fortunately, we had decorated some of the over 200 cookies with colored sugar before baking - so I didn't have to do all 200. And I lost the exact count of how many cookies I actually iced around the 100 mark (when I started to go cuckoo), but I'd say it was close to 110-120.

The icing I used tastes yummy and hardens nice and shiny. It starts with a simple syrup base, which you should make about an hour ahead so it has time to cool. Here's the recipe:

Sugar Cookie Icing
(Makes about 3 cups)

Simple syrup ingredients:
3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. water
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
dash of salt

Icing ingredients:
7 1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
2/3 c. milk
2/3 c. simple syrup (the above recipe makes just over 2/3 c.)
2 tsp. vanilla (or almond) extract

To make the simple syrup, combine the white sugar, water, cream of tartar and salt in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Let simmer 10-15 minutes until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (this means when you drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water, it forms a soft ball). Be careful not to overcook (if it cracks when you put it in the water - it's overcooked).

Remove from stove and let cool at least 1 hour. (You can make this ahead of time and store at room temperature in an air tight container for a few days.)

To make the icing, combine the confectioner's sugar and milk and whisk until smooth. Stir in the simple syrup and vanilla extract until well blended. (You can add more milk to thin the icing out or add more confectioner's sugar to thicken it up.)

You can use this plain as white icing or color it with food coloring. Here's a closeup of some iced cookies:
(Kudos go to Mr. valleywriter for his incredible colored sugar work on that candy cane!)
In the end, with our toffee and 3 kinds of cookies, we ended up with a very nice selection:

Happy Holidays to you all!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cookie Blitz - Day #1

As I've mentioned in a couple of posts over the last few weeks, I've been planning a big Christmas Cookie Blitz - and the weekend has finally arrived! Today was the perfect day to stay inside and bake, what with a foot of snow on the ground and flakes still falling with no sign of stopping and all. In addition to 2 large batches of toffee, we also made over 200 sugar cookies (I tripled a recipe that said it would make 5 dozen and lost count somewhere after the 200th cookie - so needless to say, each batch makes more than 5 dozen!).

Here's what our dining room table looked like near the end of baking:

The recipe I used is great for cut-out cookies and holds up well to re-rolling the scraps. If you're in the mood to make these, be sure to plan ahead. The longer the dough chills, the easier it is to roll out without it sticking.

Classic Sugar Cookies
(Makes about 6-7 dozen)

1 1/2 c. salted butter, softened
2 c. white sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
5 c. flour
2 tsp. baking POWDER
1/2 tsp. salt
colored sugar, if desired

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add in eggs and vanilla extract. Beat until fully combined.
In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture and stir until thoroughly mixed. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours.
When ready to make cookies, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Flour your rolling surface and rolling pin lightly with flour. Take a large hunk of dough and roll it out until it's about 1/4" thick.
Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters. (At this point, you can sprinkle cookies with colored sugar if you want. We did some with colored sugar and some plain. We'll be icing those plain ones tomorrow.)

Place cookie cut-outs on parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake 5-6 minutes.

Note: If you're planning to make more than 1 batch, I recommend making each batch of dough separately. I tried to make a double batch and discovered just how hard it is to stir 10 cups of flour into 3 cups of butter - yikes!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Spicy Shrimp & Sausage Jambalaya

Tonight's snow had me hankering for something hearty and warm for dinner. I had some shrimp and some kielbasa from Hatfield Beef, so I threw together a quick shrimp & sausage jambalaya.


1 pkg. whole grain Spanish rice mix
2 c. water
1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 medium green pepper, chopped
8 oz. kielbasa, cut into 1/2" slices
8 oz. raw shrimp, deveined and deshelled

Cook kielbasa and green pepper in a large saute pan over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes until kielbasa is browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
Pour the rice (not the seasoning mix) into the saute pan and saute for about 2 minutes. Add water, tomatoes and seasoning mix. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low.
Simmer rice for 10 minutes. Add kielbasa, green peppers and shrimp, cover and cook an additional 10-15 minutes until shrimp are fully cooked and liquid is absorbed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Spinach & Sun-Dried Tomato Stuffed Chicken Breast

I'm not sure if it's the barrage of holiday music on the radio, the TV ads featuring Santa or today's snow, but everything today is reminding me of Christmas. Even tonight's dinner, which is not at all a typical holiday meal, reminded me of it. I think it's the pretty red & green colors. I thought I'd share in case it helps put you in the holiday spirit!

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
olive oil

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

Holiday Sweet Potatoes for a Crowd

Yesterday my mom's side of the family started the holiday season with our annual Christmas party & Yankee Swap. It's always quite the production and has become so large, in fact, that we have to rent a hall to fit everyone. With 9 aunts and uncles (and their spouses) and 23 first cousins, plus who knows how many second cousins (I think it numbers somewhere in the 30s...), you can imagine it's quite the crowd to feed.

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

The Stables - Best Pancakes in the Valley

The Stables in Hadley is well-known amongst college students and locals for a great down home breakfast at a good price. The little red house set back from the road across from the Whole Foods plaza in Hadley isn't much to look at, especially with the parking lot that has potholes the size of Toyota Corolla. But what the outside lacks in glitz, the employees and the food inside more than make up for.

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

Organica Deluxe = Eco-friendly Decadence!

When I walked in the door last night, Mr. valleywriter immediately asked me "Did you order some organic shoes?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about (do they even make organic shoes? wait, what am I saying? I'm sure someone has tapped that market...). Then he showed me a bright blue box about the size of a shoe box with the label "Organica Deluxe" and I remembered that FoodBuzz had offered to send me some organic cookies to review.

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

I'm officially part of the Valley Blogosphere!

Adventures in the Pioneer Valley is now part of the Pioneer Valley Blogosphere as evidenced by its addition to Check it (and a bunch of other great Valley blogs) out here!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flame-free S'mores

I have been craving s'mores for about a week now. I don't know why exactly, but I just couldn't get them out of my mind. Unfortunately, there will be no campfires in my future anytime soon (despite my predictions of summer weather on the way earlier today, I highly doubt we'll see any of that for at least 5-6 more months).

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?!

3 Seasons in 5 Days - Up Next, Summer?

If you live in the Valley, you can attest to the craziness of the weather the last few days. On Saturday, it was fairly seasonal with temps in the mid- to high-30s, so that counts as fall-like (for New England, anyway). Sunday afternoon, the winds started whipping in, bringing in frigid air and snow squalls. Monday the high was only about 20 degrees and with the wind, it felt a lot colder (definitely winter-like). Yesterday morning was still cold and winter-like, we even had a dusting of snow in the morning. But by afternoon, some warm spring winds started moving in and the high got up to the low 50s. Today, it's a rainy spring day with temps in the mid-50s!

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

Cookie Blitz Recipe #3 - Soft Ginger Cookies

I had planned to make gingersnaps as part of my holiday cookie blitz (along with the toffee & white chocolate cranberry cookies I've already tested out). However, after trying a couple of recipes, I decided to go with a softer ginger cookie. There edges have a little snappiness to them, but the insides are soft and chewy and wonderful. The test batch I made didn't last 12 hours in this house!

Ginger Cookies
(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 egg
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

Dijon Marsala Pork Tenderloin

I used to think that I wasn't a big fan of pork. Growing up, I really only ever had it as pork chops cooked within an inch of their lives (sorry Mom!). But recently I decided to give pork another try when my local store had an incredible sale on pork tenderloin (less than $2 a pound!). The first time I made it, I baked it with sauerkraut and it was very moist, tender & yummy. So I went back to the store and stocked up and have been trying out different recipes since.

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

Yankee Candle Village - Much More Than Candles!

Yankee Candle has become world-famous for its array of amazingly scented candles. But once upon a time, there were no Yankee Candle stores at the mall or next to the local Pier 1. There was only 1 place to get them - at the source in South Deerfield, MA. I remember my mom and aunts making a big event of their trips to Yankee back in those days. Sometimes they'd even take us kids around Christmastime so we could see Santa. Today, the flagship store continues to be more than just a store; it's a destination, especially at the holidays.

I visited tonight to take some pictures of the amazing lights and decorations they have up for the holiday season:

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

Drinks & Apps at the Blue Heron

Last night I went out with some co-workers for drinks and appetizers at the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland. I'd never been to The Blue Heron before, but I'd heard many reviews about how incredible it was - the ultimate fine dining experience, in many people's opinions. Mr. valleywriter and I always intend to go sometime, but it's a little out of the way for us, so we just never seem to think of it.

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

More Cookie Blitz Testing! This Time: White Chocolate Chip Craisin® Cookies

Christmas is just over 3 weeks away - so I really better figure out what I'm making for my cookie blitz. My plan right now is to make toffee, sugar cookies, gingersnaps and white chocolate chip cranberry cookies. But, before 2 weeks ago, I'd only ever made the sugar cookies. So, I figured I should test out the other cookies before I make big batches. The latest trial was:

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
1 egg
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! :-)