Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #4

This week, let's talk about 5 ways to use less gas, which helps save you money and helps the environment by reducing carbon output. Here we go:

1. Carpool (or walk or ride a bike). Yeah, it's the obvious answer, but it's a great choice. You save money on gas and maintenance and help reduce carbon emissions. The more people you carpool with, the better. But even if you can only share a ride with 1 person, 1 day a week (or ride your bike or walk) - it can still make a difference.

2. Slow down! By now if you haven't heard that slowing down can help you save gas, you must be living under a rock. But do you know the full details? The facts: for every 10 miles per hour (mph) over 60 mph that you drive on the highway, you lose about 4 miles per gallon (mpg) of efficiency. So if your car is rated for 30 mpg on the highway and you drive 70 mph, you're only going to get about 26 mpg. That can really add up on frequent or long highway drives. I commute about 40 miles roundtrip up and down I-91 every day and since reducing my speed, I've been able to go an extra day between fill-ups. And the further you can drive on a gallon of gas, the less carbon you'll be putting into the atmosphere in the long run.

3. Replace your air filter. I know, I know - you think the guys at Jiffy Lube are trying to con you by selling you a $20 air filter. But it really can save you money in the long run. (As can buying your own air filter at an auto parts store. They're cheap and generally easy to replace.) By replacing a clogged air filter, you can increase your mpg by up to 10%.

4. Be a calm, smooth driver. Accelerating or braking quickly (or frequently) wastes gas. So tune into some smooth jazz or relaxing classical music, ease your way on and off the highway and improve your fuel efficiency by up to 30%!

5. Check the air in your tires regularly. Keeping the right amount of air in your tires ensures your car gets the best mpg rating it can. You lose about 1% of fuel efficiency for every 3 psi your tires are under-inflated. And yes, even good tires lose pressure, so check your tires every month or so. (Check your car owner's manual to find out the proper tire pressure for both your front and rear tires. Keep in mind it can be different.)

Happy driving!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Rainy Day at the Big E

A couple of months ago, I won tickets to the Fergie concert on the last night of the Big E (a.k.a. the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, MA). The tickets also included admission to the Big E, so we held out until the last day (yesterday) to go at all. The morning started out dreary, but then the sun came out, so we thought it might turn out to be a decent Big E day after all.

We arrived mid-afternoon and made our way around, sampling delights along the way. Yes, it is all about the food! First was the corn dog (hadn't had one in years, had to try it). Then we sat down for a beer and some munchies in the Sam Adams Beer Garden. We moved on to the Avenue of States, checking out the food and wares of companies and organizations from each of the 6 eastern states included in the Big E (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island).

Mr. valleywriter had some Connecticut kettle corn and we both enjoyed a Massachusetts creamy cone. The popcorn and ice cream were OK, but I don't think they played to each state's culinary forte quite like the Maine baked potatoes did. The line for the those was at least 75 people long, so I have to imagine they were good, but honestly all I could think was "Geez - it's only a potato!"

(Yes, all these people really are in line for a potato.)

By this time, we were stuffed and needed to walk it off. We had a 3 hours to go before the concert and I really wanted a Big E cream puff, so I had 3 hours to make room. We roamed around the midway and checked out the various displays and exhibits.















For the most part, the crowd seemed smaller than the last time we'd come to the Big E, probably thanks to it being the last day. But while we were in the Better Living Center laughing at quite a few ridiculous "As Seen on TV" products, we suddenly noticed the crowd was swelling. And then we noticed everyone was wet. Ugh - it was raining.

And it kept on raining as we dodged to other buildings in an attempt to stay dry and hold out to see if the rain would stop in time for the concert. Between the bouts of rain dodging and complaining, we did manage to see the Clydesdale horses, a few goats, some sheep, a little piglet having a snack, 2 alpacas and some baby chicks that had just hatched. (And a partridge in a pear tree... OK, so maybe not that.)















Unfortunately all the rain and walking got my joints acting up, so about an hour before the concert started, we decided to bag it. We agreed we're getting too old to be standing out at a concert in the rain anyway. I still wanted that cream puff, so we hunted for it on our way out. On the way, we got to see the parade go by, which somewhat randomly included a Star Wars contingent. (A sight to which I cried out in what will likely go down as my nerdiest statement ever "Ooh! Storm troopers!")


By the time we found our gate, we were soaked, our feet hurt and the cream puffs remained elusive. I reluctantly gave up the hunt and told Mr. valleywriter we could go home. Next year, little cream puffs, next year.

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's pumpkin (cheesecake) season in the valley!

Pumpkins are popping up everywhere in the valley. In gardens, at farmer's markets and roadside stands and even on menus (as evidenced by the pumpkin pie offering I shared with you last time). Jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pie are the obvious uses for this bounty of gourds, but pumpkin cheesecake is more my speed.


In the past I've made my fall pumpkin cheesecakes in standard 10" springform pans. But this year I decided to make mini cheesecakes using this great new mini cheesecake pan:




As you can see from the picture, the pan has little removable discs that you can push out of the bottom. You put the disc in, put in your crust and cheesecake mixture, bake, let cool and then push your finger up through the bottom to pop out a perfect little cheesecake. This is the neatest pan I have - I love it! (You can buy them at Amazon - check out my list of favorites on the right.)

If you don't have this pan, but still want mini cheesecakes, you can also use a muffin pan. If you do, be sure to use paper liners so you can get your cheesecakes out. (With the cheesecake pan, no liners are needed.)

On to the recipe for 12 mini cheesecakes:

12 small gingersnap cookies (Archway brand cookies are the right size)

1 8 oz. package cream cheese

1/4 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. cooked pumpkin (you can use canned if you're not so lucky as to have a bumper crop of pumpkins in your neck of the woods)

2 Tbsp. heavy cream

2 Tbsp. maple syrup

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or 1/4 tsp. cinnamon plus 1/8 tsp. ginger plus 1/8 tsp. nutmeg)

1 whole egg

1 egg white

Bring eggs and cream cheese to room temperature (cream cheese should be soft).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat cream cheese and brown sugar in mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add pumpkin and mix. Beat in heavy cream, maple syrup, vanilla, brown sugar and spices. Add egg and egg white one at a time and beat until smooth.

Put a gingersnap into the bottom of each cup in the pan (make sure the metal disc is already in there!). Fill cups about 3/4 full with cheesecake batter. Bake at 375 degrees for 14 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes before removing from pan. Chill in refrigerator overnight (or at least 4 hours).

I like to serve mine with a little homemade whipped cream on top:

Yum!!

(If you want to make this recipe using a standard springform pan take 1 1/2 cups crushed gingersnaps and mix with 3 Tbsp. sugar and 6 Tbsp. butter. Press into bottom of springform pan. Triple the cheesecake batter ingredients [cream cheese, pumpkin, spices, etc.] and mix according to instructions. Pour into pan and bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Watch Out Herrell's - Here Comes Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream!

As I'm sure you can already tell, I eat out a lot. Whenever I can, in fact. I'm a self-proclaimed "foodie," but my real weakness is desserts. Cakes, cookies, fudge, ice cream - you name it, I want to try it. I am always in search of a new treat I can deem worthy of the calorie splurge (and the resulting extra long run...)


I noticed Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream shortly after we moved to Easthampton earlier this summer and I drove down Cottage Street. But Mr. valleywriter and I tend to go for creamies in the summer (since that's the only time you can get them) so we hadn't made it into Mt. Tom's until last Sunday. When we walked in the door, the first thing I noticed were the seemingly endless jars of candy. Gummy fruit, malted milkballs, lollypops, jelly beans and more lined shelves on nearly 2/3 of the store.






Then my eyes went to the real prize - the ice cream counter and the giant blackboard above it listing the many wonderous delights I would soon be forced to choose just 1 from.






Mt. Tom's has not only ice cream, but also frozen yogurt, sugar-free ice cream and sorbet. Plus lots of goodies made with their frozen confections - ice cream pies, sundaes, milkshakes, etc. I gazed up in awe of the seemingly endless list of flavors, but quickly zeroed in on one of the special flavors - pumpkin pie. It was a warm fall day, so the combination of a comforting fall favorite (pumpkin pie) and a refreshing summer treat (ice cream) sounded like the perfect choice.

Mr. valleywriter ended up picking the chocolate fudge brownie (not as adventurous - but chocolate is always a good choice). We both ordered regular size cones (they come in regular and large) and the total came to only $6. It's priced right so that when you add tax - it comes out to an even number - genius!

I can't remember the last time we got away from an ice cream store for only $6. Even the creamy place in town charged almost $8 for 2 regular creamies. And at Herrell's in Northampton, 2 "mediums" are nearly $7.50 (and they're pretty small). Mt. Tom's doesn't skimp, either; the regulars are a good size:


OK - I know what you're thinking - there's plenty of cheap and totally non-splurge-worthy ice cream out there - so price isn't everything. Could this stack up? OH YEAH!!!

My pumpkin pie ice cream was super rich and creamy with just the right amount of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and allspice to evoke many a wonderful Thanksgiving memory. Actually, it tasted a lot like my favorite pumpkin cheesecake recipe (stayed tuned for that later this week). To boot - the pumpkin pie ice cream even had soft little chunks of pie crust sprinkled throughout!

Mr. valleywriter's chocolate fudge brownie was also rich, creamy and more chocolately than any other ice cream I've ever tried. I wasn't so lucky as to get a bite of brownie, but Mr. valleywriter says they were top notch. In fact, he liked his ice cream so much, he finished it before I finished mine (which I think is a first!). We savored every sweet, creamy bite from the first lick to the last little drop in the bottom of the cone. And if our tummies hadn't been full, we might have gone back for more.

Watch out Herrell's - I think Mt. Tom's going to give you a run for your money in this year's Best of the Valley (it's got our votes!).

P.S. The owner of Mt. Tom's has his own cool blog. Check out - The Ice Cream Diaries.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #3

As promised, I'm letting go of my plastic bag obsession this week and moving on to... *drumroll* earth- and wallet-friendly cleaning products!

Many cleaning products on the market contain phosphates, bleach and other corrosive or harmful substances that can be bad for the environment - and a potential danger to your health. Sure, there are plenty of "green" cleaners coming on the market now, but they're all more expensive than the regular cleaners - sometimes much more so. The good news is you can make your own effective cleaners right at home with inexpensive ingredients - many of which you probably already have on hand.



A couple of notes before we get started:
1. Some cleaners are meant to be sprayed on. You can reuse a thoroughly cleaned spray bottle you have or buy an expensive one (or 2) at Target, the dollar store, etc. Be sure to clearly label your spray bottles and store them away from kids, pets, etc.

2. Many of these cleaners call for vinegar. Don't worry - your house won't smell forever. The vinegar smell goes away when it dries.

OK - here we go!

Toilet bowl cleaner: Sprinkle the bowl with baking soda. Then spray with white vinegar. Let sit for a minute and scrub with toilet brush.

All purpose household cleaner (for cleaning counters, tile floors, etc.): In a spray bottle, mix 1 cup of white vinegar with 1 cup of water. Spray on surface and wipe with cleaning cloth.

Tub cleaner/soap scum/rust remover: Make a paste by combining a few tablespoons of baking soda with a few tablespoons of water. Apply to sponge or cleaning cloth and scrub surface. Rinse with water.

Glass cleaner: Mix 1/2 cup isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, 1/2 cup water and 1 tablespoon vinegar in a spray bottle. Spray on window or mirrors & wipe with crumpled newspaper for a streak-free shine. (Flatten the newspaper out when you're done and recycle it!!)

Disinfectant: Plain old isopropyl alcohol makes a great disinfectant. Be sure to wear gloves and keep the area well-ventilated. Then just spray on and let dry.

Silver polish: Apply toothpaste (regular white paste - not gel) and rub with clean cloth. The tarnish will come right off.

Furniture polish: Mix 1/2 cup olive oil with 1/4 lemon juice. Apply to soft cloth and wipe down furniture.

Drain cleaner: Pour 1 cup baking soda into drain, followed by 1 cup white vinegar. After bubbles die down, flush the drain with hot (preferably boiling) water.

There you go - 8 green cleaners you can make for cheap. Happy cleaning!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Frigo's - Great Italian Deli in the Heart of Springfield

Mr. valleywriter and I had a rare weekday off together and were spending it running errands (what a way to use vacation time...). One of the errands involved popping down to Springfield and it just so happened we found ourselves there at lunch time. I suggested finding a good sandwich and Mr. valleywriter said Frigo's was the place to go.

Not being too familiar with Springfield (and the hubby not knowing the exact address) it took us a few wrong turns before we finally found it. But if you know where you're going - it's pretty easy. Frigo's is located on William Street, right off East Columbus Ave. It's just north of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but on the opposite side of the road. (You can get there off I-91 by taking Exit 6.)

Frigo's is a classic Italian deli, specialty foods market and catering company. The Springfield location is the main store, but they also have a sister store in East Longmeadow. In Springfield, the deli case spans the entire back of the store, running a good 25 feet. It's filled with homemade salads, pastas, ready-to-eat Italian entrees (think lasagna, eggplant parmesan, etc.), as well as fresh meats and cheeses that you can have sliced to your order and/or made into a sandwich.

We ordered "The Courthouse Special" - an 8-inch sub on soft, white Italian bread, filled with ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and honey mustard dressing. While the hubby waited for our oder, I poked around the market area that's located in the front part of the store. I walked down one narrow aisle and was amazed at the rows and rows of different oils and balsamic vinegars. I swear they must have had 50 different varieties of balsamic - I never knew that many existed!

The next aisle over had every kind of pasta you could ever want - from angel hair to gnocche to lasagna to ziti. They also have an ecletic collection of other specialty ingredients like prized porchini mushrooms, all-natural salad dressings, polenta, a decent selection of wine and a variety of jams and sauces.

My eyes were twinkling and my mouth about ready to start drooling as I stared at the cheese case (think huge wheels of parmesan and giant tubs of marscapone) when Mr. valleywriter saved me (and my thighs) by telling me our order was ready. He paid for our sandwich and 2 sodas at the cash register (it came to just $7.99 - a steal for lunch for 2 people!) while I stared longingly at the stack of chocolate-covered cannolis strategically placed on the counter. I was telling myself that I would only get one if hubby suggested it while secretly hoping he would, but unfortunately for me, he didn't. (Next time!)

It was a pleasant fall afternoon, so we sat outside at one of the small bistro tables they have in front of the store to eat our lunch. The sandwich was packed full of delicate almost-shaved slices of ham, crunchy fresh lettuce, sweet tomatoes and a unique zesty honey mustard dressing. They'd cut the sandwich in half, but it ended up being more like 1/3 and 2/3, which worked out perfectly for us. 1/3 of the sandwich was more than enough for me and Mr. valleywriter looked stuffed after eating his 2/3, too.

While I don't get down south too often, Mr. valleywriter works down that way, so I have a feeling there might be a few more deli takeout lunches from Frigo's in his future. And the next time we do an Italian dinner party, forget the Americanized-Italian food at the grocery store - I'm heading to Frigo's to get authentic Italian ingredients. If you're in the area - give it a try!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Great Food, Slow Service - Nini's Restaurant

After our open house yesterday, a few of us decided to venture into the center of Easthampton to grab a bite for dinner. Italian food was the one thing we could all agree on, so we set our sights on Nini's Restaurant on Cottage Street. Parking is all on-street, which took a little hunting for at 7pm on a Saturday night, but we did manage to find.

Upon entering, we waited about 5 minutes before anyone even acknowledged our presence. It was a busy Saturday night and Nini's doesn't seem to have a dedicated host - just servers who also act as host. Once we did talk to someone, it took another 10 minutes to get a table for 5. Not bad for a Saturday night with no reservation.

When we sat down, again there was a fairly long wait for someone to come to our table. The place was hopping and there were only 2 servers for the 8 full tables that were in our room, plus the bar. The long waits between visits from the server were consistent. 10 minutes to get our water. Another 15 minutes to get the other drinks that had been ordered. Another 10 minutes to take our dinner order. Another 20 minutes for salads to come. Another 30 minutes for food to come. And we had to hunt the server down to ask for a refill on the waters - and eventually for our check.

The long waits didn't bother us too much since the food delivered, but it's something to keep in mind if you have kids or are trying to do something after your dinner. It seems like you need to plan a good 1 1/2 - 2 hours for dinner here.

But as I noted, the food makes up for the longer waits. Each entree comes with a salad and fresh bread with herbed oil for dipping. And the entrees were all heavenly. The eggplant rollatini - breaded eggplant rolled around proscuitto ham and ricotta, smothered in marinara and mozarrella - was absolutley decadent. The rigatoni bolognese was authentic Italian with generous chunks of pork and beef spread through the sauce. And the portions were also quite generous. A couple of people in our group took home doggie bags - and no one made it to dessert.

I felt the prices were also quite reasonable - especially as compared to some other Italian restaurants in the area (2 such Northampton restaurants immediately come to mind). Entrees start at around $10, most are between $12-15, and the most expensive one I saw was a veal dish for $17 (but you shouldn't be eating veal anyway!!!). Nini's also has pizza - which you can order for take out as well. A 14" pizza starts at $14, which again seems reasonable for non-chain pizza.

Overall, I would recommend Nini's for a relaxing, slow-paced dinner when you're happy to sit back with a glass of wine and a loaf of homemade bread and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Taste of the Pioneer Valley

We're having an open house tomorrow to show our friends and family our new house. Parties, at least the good kind, naturally involve food, so I decided to give my friends & family a little taste of the valley by making apple turnovers with fresh early apples from Outlook Farm in Westhampton, MA. I wasn't able to make it out the farm myself this week given all of the fun goings on, but I was able to find a 1/2 peck of freshly picked Paula Red apples at Big E's supermarket in Easthampton.

I made the turnovers from scratch, including the crust, which turned out to be a lot more labor intensive and time consuming than I expected! However, I was pleased with the results. I have a whole platter full of flaky, yummy taste-of-fall turnovers to share with my guests:




Below is the recipe for making about 20 small to medium turnovers. If you're short on time, you can use frozen puff pastry instead of making your own crust.

Crust
Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 to 4 Tbsp. ice water

Directions:
1. Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and put in the freezer for at least 20 minutes so it becomes fully chilled and hard.

2. Combine flour, salt and sugar in a food processor and pulse to mix.

3. Add butter and pulse 8-10 times until the mixture is crumbly with pea-sized chunks of butter.

4. Add 1 Tbsp. of water at a time, pulsing until the dough just starts to clump together.

5. Pour clumpy dough out of food processor onto a clean surface. Carefully shape into 1 or 2 balls. Be careful not to over-work the dough, as this will make it hard instead of flaky.

6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

About 15 minutes before the dough will be ready, you can start the turnover filling.

Apple turnover filling

Ingredients:

4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced into small pieces (As noted above, I used Paula Red apples. Granny Smith would be another good choice - just use a little more sugar.)
2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. water
1 egg white
white sugar for topping

Directions:

1. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat.

2. Add apples and cook for 3 minutes. Now would be a good time to take your dough out of the refrigerator so it can rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

3. Add sugar and cinnamon and cook for another 3 minutes.

4. Mix cornstarch and water until cornstarch is fully dissolved. Add to skillet, turn heat to low and simmer until sauce is thickened.

5. Remove skillet from heat and allow apple mixture to cool about 10 minutes.

6. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

7. Take your dough that's been sitting for about 10 minutes, lightly flour it and roll out into a 10-12 inch by 10-12 inch square on a lightly floured surface. Add flour as needed to ensure the dough doesn't stick to the surface or rolling pin.

8. Once dough is about 1/8 inch thick, cut into approximately 4 inch by 4 inch squares. (Larger if you want large turnovers, smaller if you want mini turnovers.)

9. Place about 1 - 1 1/2 tsp. of apple mixture in the middle of a dough square.

10. Fold dough corner to corner to make a triangle shape and seal ends by crimping with a fork. Poke the top of a turnover with a fork or slit with a knife so steam can escape.

11. Repeat until you have enough turnovers to fill a cookie sheet, spacing about 1 inch apart.

12. Lightly beat 1 egg white in a bowl and gently wash over turnovers. Sprinkle turnovers with white sugar.

13. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes until turnovers are lightly browned. If edges start to burn, reduce heat to 375 degrees.

14. Let cool & then enjoy!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #2

Last week I touted the benefits of reusable grocery bags. But let's get real - into every greenie's life, the occasional plastic bag doth fall. Whether it be a plastic bread bag, a produce bag or a bag you had to take because you forgot your reusables and they didn't have paper - you will likely end up with your very own collection at some point.


You can recycle these bags at many large stores throughout the valley - Stop & Shop, Big Y, Trader Joe's, Walmart, etc. But you can also reuse them and save yourself some money. Here are 10 tips (in no particular order) for doing just that:


1. Reuse them in bathroom or other small trash cans. Don't spend money on those speciality trash can liners; most store bags are just the right size. (And you can get more than one use out of each bag by dumping out the contents into your regular trash weekly and reusing the bag several times.)


2. Use them as gardening knee pads/protectors. No need to invest in a special gardening knee pad that will just take up extra room in your garage. Tie two plastic bags around your knees and you're good to go.

(I'm telling you - this is a fashion statement in the making! But seriously - they do keep your knees clean and dry.)

3. Use them for packing or moving instead of packing peanuts or tissue. They work very well separating plates and/or glasses and keeping them from clinking in transit.

4. Who needs expensive outdoor mats when you can make your own? That's right - you can make your own washable outdoor mat by cutting plastic bags into strips and braiding them together into a rug. Or you can use the strips to make a hook rug. (You can find instructions for making plastic yarn, or "plarn," here.)

5. Use them to make Fido or Fluffy his or her very own pet bed. Don't spend big bucks on a premade bed or special craft pillow stuffing. Just pick a heavy fabric to make your pillow (perhaps reuse some old towels you were going to throw away?), then fill it up with balled up plastic bags.

6. $4 for a roll of gift wrap? Forget that! Just find 2-3 colorful plastic bags, wrap them around your gift, then tie the handles into bows. Or cut the ends of the handles off and fan them out into a pom-pom top.

7. Extend the life of your winter boots. Getting time to replace those leaky boots? Eek them out another paycheck (or 2 or even a whole season) by putting plastic bread bags over your feet before putting your boots on. Tuck the bags under your pants or back into the top of the boots and no one will be the wiser - except for your warm, dry, happy feet.

8. Like the look of big pots for your indoor or outdoor plants? You don't need to use bags and bags of potting soil to fill up your favorite big planter. Stuff the bottom with bunched up plastic bags, then fill in the top part with just enough soil to accommodate the size of the root ball. You'll save money on potting soil and water - and the planter will be a lot easier to move.

9. Don't get conned in to buying plastic drop cloths at the paint store. You're just going to get them dirty anyway! Cut the sides of a few bags to make long rectangles and tape the sides of the bags together. Presto - free drop cloth!

10. Use them to make fun holiday decorations with kids. Crafting with plastic bags is a cheap, easy way to entertain the kids. For example, use white plastic bags to make Halloween "ghosts" that you can hang from doorways. (Stuff 1-2 plastic bags into the corner of another one and tie a piece of yarn or floss below the ball to form the ghost's head.) Or use them as stuffing to make a fall scarecrow (as a side benefit for you - bags are lot less messy than leaves, pine needles, hay or other traditional scarecrow stuffings).

OK - I swear that's my last rant (for a while anyway) about bags! Next week - something completely new. I promise!

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Valley's On-Again-Off-Again Start to Fall

I just mentioned last week that signs of fall were coming early to the valley. Today I think Mother Nature got confused (or decided to mess with my head). When I went out for a run at 6:15am, it was already 70 degrees. It was also 90% humidity, giving the air a humid, thick summer-like quality. On most morning runs lately it’s been between 50-60 degrees and long sleeves have been the order of the day. I was cursing my long sleeves the entire run today as sweat poured off me.

For a couple of hours I thought (OK - hoped with reckless abandon) we might be in for an “Indian Summer” this week. I even wore short sleeves to work (very rare for me). However, as I drove through Northampton on my way to work, I saw a breeze moving in and pulling leaves off the trees. Children had brought their sweaters to the bus stop. Obviously they (or more likely, their moms) knew something I didn’t.

When I got into work, my little desktop forecaster told me the humidity would fall throughout the day and we’d get back to more “seasonable” weather by tonight. In fact, there was even another frost warning for the end of the week! Ahh… dreams of summer dashed again.

But that’s OK, because true to my vow to enjoy fall, I must admit I found the bright red and orange leaves falling off the trees this morning very beautiful. I watched them twirl through the branches to the ground and skitter across the sidewalk before finally coming to rest nestled in the still-emerald-green grass. And the promise of sunny, breezy afternoons the rest of the week have me longing for my college days, with long breaks between classes spent lounging on the Quad for the first few weeks of school.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love sunny summer days, 80- to 90-degree weather and sipping cool drinks by the pool... but maybe this fall thing isn’t so bad, either.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Springfield's Hot Spot - ONYX Fusion Bar & Restaurant

ONYX Fusion Bar & Restaurant is a fairly new restaurant in Springfield, MA (it just opened this year). ONYX bills itself as "Contemporary East-West Cuisine that melds fresh local and international ingredients with modern and traditional technique." With a description like that, how could 2 foodies like us (the hubby & me, that is) resist? Quite frankly, we couldn't - so we went down to Springfield Friday night to check it out.


ONYX is located in the old Basketball Hall of Fame building, just off exit 6 on I-91 South. I was interested to learn that during the remodeling of the building, the owners of ONYX made a concerted effort to go green. They recycled over 80% of the construction debris, put a rain water collection pond on the roof (and they filter the water for reuse in the restaurant), installed energy efficient systems throughout and used renewable bamboo flooring. You'll also notice that they don't use tablecloths in an effort to further reduce water consumption.



The minute you walk in the door of ONYX, you know you're in a hip, happening place. At 7pm on a Friday night, the bar was full, the music was pumping and most of the tables were full. I'm glad we'd made a reservation, which you can do online using Open Table. Upon arriving, we were quickly taken to our table for 2 upstairs. We were seated overlooking the amazing bar, which is the focal point of the restaurant:




The atmosphere at ONYX is quite impressive. Behind the bar is a huge wall of flat panel TVs that were playing a relaxing blend of beach-inspired videos during our visit, which complimented the live reggae band playing downstairs (they have live entertainment Tuesday-Saturday nights). Warm, rich wall colors are the perfect backdrop for the water walls, contemporary chandeliers and other unique accessories scattered throughout the restaurant. Mr. ValleyWriter & I both felt like we had been transported to a hip restaurant in the heart of Boston or New York - which is a first for us in all the restaurants we've visited in the pioneer valley.

After we were seated, our waiter brought over some fresh edamame sprinkled with a spicy salt rub to whet our appetites. We ordered a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvingon, which was very well priced - as was the whole wine menu - I thought.

Mr. ValleyWriter started with the soup of the day, which was a creamy sweet potato with chipolte pepper soup (incredibly smooth & yummy!). I decided to truly indulge in the East-meets-West experience by trying the spicy tuna hand roll sushi. The tuna was incredibly fresh (important when you're eating raw fish) and I have to say it was hands down the best sushi I've ever eaten.

For entrees, Mr. ValleyWriter had the Hawaiian rib eye steak, which was perfectly cooked and very tender and flavorful. I enjoyed the pad thai with coconut and duck confit, which was also perfectly cooked and did an amazing job of blending all of the unique flavors of the ingredients in the dish.

Believe it or not - we even made it to dessert. A seasonal apple and cranberry cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. One word - YUM!!

ONYX is clearly committed to using fresh ingredients, which shows in the amazing flavors of everything we tried. They are also committed to service. Throughout the evening, our waiter was attentive, but not to the point of being obtrusive. The different courses were very well timed, allowing ample time for us to digest a little before the next course, but not wonder where our food was. We also received table side visits from the manager as well as one of the owners of the restaurant, just to make sure we were enjoying ourselves (and we were!).

We had an incredible time at ONYX Fusion Bar & Restaurant and will definitely be back.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Signs of Fall in the Pioneer Valley

I’m sad to report that, while it’s only the 2nd week of September, fall seems to be starting already in the Pioneer Valley. Cooler nights, brisker air, warnings of frost and—the kicker—leaves starting to change:




The official start of fall is still a week and a 1/2 away, so I’m not happy about the early arrival. I am a warm weather lover and I’ve always dreaded fall because it is only a sign of things to come. Specifically, 6 months of winter. (OK, so maybe it’s not really 6 months, but it feels like it sometimes!)

However, I've made a resolution to turn over a new leaf this year. I’m vowing to try to enjoy fall and all it has to offer. After all, fall in the Valley is very pretty, there’s lots to do (I’m hoping to go apple picking this weekend if the weather holds out!) and the daytime temperatures really aren’t that bad. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe in a few weeks I’ll actually start to smile at the leaves changing color, rather than groaning at them…

Got any ideas for fun fall activities? If so, please leave a comment!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #1

Tuesdays are notoriously slow days. You're barely through the week and the weekend isn't really in sight yet. So I figured I'd start the "Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week" to give you Valley greenies something to look forward to every week. If you live in the Pioneer Valley, you know everyone is getting on the go green bandwagon or has already been on it for years. But what steps can you take to go green and save yourself some money? Check back here every week to find out! Let's get started:

Tip #1 - Use Your Own Bags at the Grocery Store
Sure, you've heard this tip a million times. Save the Earth from the evils of non-degrading plastic by using your own bags. But did you know this tip can save you money in the Valley? That's right. Stop and Shop stores (found all over the valley - Northampton, Holyoke, Greenfield, Belchertown, Chicopee, etc.) now offer 5 cents back on your order for every reusable bag you bring to bag your groceries.

Stop and Shop sells reusable bags for 99 cents (uninsulated) and $1.99 (insulated). If you buy a basic 99 cent bag, it'll pay for itself after 20 trips to the store. So after that, you start racking up the savings by reusing them. And these bags are sturdy - they should last you much longer than 20 trips to the store.

I've been using my 5 bags for over a year (way more than 20 times each) and they're still going strong. I use them not only for trips to the grocery store, but to other stores, like CVS, and farm stands, too. Not only do the bags save me money, they're also easier to carry than plastic or paper grocery bags. The handles are nice and wide, so they don't cut off the circulation in my hands like plastic bags used to. And they're extra long, so I can actually fit the handles over my shoulders and carry all 4-5 bags of groceries into the house in one trip!

You can buy similar bags at other local grocers like Big Y (often marked down to 48 cents each with a silver coin) and Whole Foods. Or you can style it up and buy specialty canvas bags with cool sayings. My personal favorite is the one at Amazon that says "Make Love, Not Carbon." (*hint* *hint* Christmas is coming soon Mr. valleywriter!!)

So join the crunchy cult and buy some resuable bags. Help save yourself some green and the planet, too!

Next week: Find out what to do with those plastic bags you do end up with (produce bags, bread bags, etc.).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Who says nothing good in life is free? The Great New England Air Show

This year marked the return of The Great New England Air Show to Westover Air Force Reserve Base in Chicopee, MA after a 4-year hiatus. According to news coverage, past air shows at Westover have had nearly 1/2 million visitors over the 2 days they run, probably thanks in large part to the fact that the show is completely free. That’s right, free. No admission fee. No parking fee.

I was all for an afternoon adventure that wouldn't put a big dent in our wallets. (Mr. valleywriter—that’s the hubby—says I’m cheap, but I prefer the term “frugal.") I had considered checking out the Connecticut River Valley Brew Fest, but I knew we wouldn’t be able to drink nearly enough beer to make the $25 per ticket price tag a decent deal. (Yeah, I'm a light weight when it comes to alcohol.) So off to Chicopee we headed on Sunday morning to check out the air show.

As we approached the Westover base, traffic quickly backed up and we waited in a very long line for quite some time. It took us about 35 minutes to drive 1.5 miles. (Note to self: Next time do not drink a 20 oz. bottle of water before heading out to the air show...) But once we made it to the gate, parking was easy and it was only about a 10-minute walk to the show itself. They had shuttle buses from the parking area to the show, but I made Mr. valleywriter huff it with me.

We arrived a little before 1pm and over the next 2 hours, we were treated to demonstrations by a Super Hornet jet (really fast, really loud):



a WWII-era War Bird doing stunts like rolls, figure-8s and loops (very cool):



and the Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour as they drop from the sky (they've got to be nuts!):


In addition to the aerial shows, many different types of aircraft were on display on the ground. We were even able to walk through some of them, like this behemoth:















(I don't know what that plane is called. Mr. valleywriter says "It's not the Hercules, but the bigger one." Yeah - that helped. Anyway - if you know what it is - please leave a comment!)

Gorgeous blue, sunny skies, a warm breeze and plenty of entertainment made for a fun afternoon. The Great New England Air Show proves that some good things in life truly are free!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Artists are a funny bunch...

The Pioneer Valley is home to many creative people - writers, illustrators, painters, photographers, etc. And even those who aren't artists still seem to have a great appreciation for art - at least moreso than in other places I've lived. Of course, as a writer, I am classified as one of these "creative types" myself and I am happily surrounded by like-minded people at the publishing company where I work.

Where am I going with this? Well, I re-discovered just yesterday how deep the appreciation for art runs here in the valley. While the work week was technically short (only 4 days thanks to the Labor Day holiday), it seem nearly interminable to me. So I decided to celebrate Friday by indulging in a little chocolate and sharing with my cubicle-bound workmates. At noontime, I set out a bag of dark chocolate Hershey Kisses, ever so creatively laid out to spell "TGIF!!!"

Two and a half hours later, I noticed only 2 exclamation points had been eaten:

Quite frankly, that much chocolate sitting untouched for 2 1/2 hours at my work is nearly unheard of. So I started to wonder why people weren't eating it. And it occured to me that no one wanted to mess up the "art" I had created. So I decided to run a little experiment. I pushed the kisses into a pile in the center of the table:


And then I watched my coworkers flock:











Yup - that was all it took. A pile is, apparently, not art, so it may be eaten. Amusingly enough, as the pile dwindled over the next hour or so, it found itself turned back into art (by an unknown agent - it wasn't me!):



And once it became art again, no one would eat anymore. Sure, it may seem silly to some - but if you think about it - it's just another great part of the valley. To be surrounded by people who appreciate art and beauty, no matter how rudimentary it may be.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Runner's Paradise in Paradise City (aka Northampton)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working to lose weight, keep it off and get in better overall shape. At my heaviest (and even just a few pounds ago), I was a self-professed “non-runner.” In fact, you could have called me a running-hater. I tried it a few times, but always felt out of breath, got stomach cramps or over did it so much that the next day I felt like I couldn’t move.

Fast forward a few dress sizes smaller. I’d been going to the gym for several months, using the elliptical machines and stair climbers, and walking on the treadmill. Warmer weather was approaching and it seemed silly to always be cooped up inside the gym, so I decided I was ready to try running again.

I laced up my old sneakers and hit the roads of Hatfield (where I lived at the time). The hubby & I used to walk a lot in Hatfield, so I knew a couple of 1 and 2 mile loops. The first few times, I only ran 1/2 a mile and then walked the rest. It actually wasn’t so bad, but I was still feeling a little cramping in my sides when running. A running friend told me the secret to heading off these “side stitches”) was to belly breathe. You do this by breathing in through your nose and letting your belly push out, then exhaling through your mouth. The exhale should be about twice as long as the inhale.

Once I got the breathing under control, I stepped it up to 1 mile, then a mile and a 1/2, etc. Within a few weeks, I was running 2 miles at a time 2-3 days a week on the days I didn't feel like going to the gym.

Fast forward a couple of months. We moved to Easthampton and stopped going to the gym (new house = cutting back on “extras”). To compensate, I stepped up the running program again, now running 2-3 miles 5-6 days a week. A couple of weeks ago, my ankle started to feel stiff in the morning. One day after a run, it blew up like a balloon. Not good. I showed it to some experienced runners at work and they all said “What shoes are wearing?”

When I told them about my 6-month-old sneakers from Dick’s, they were thoroughly unimpressed. Every one of them told me to get to the Northampton Running Company and get some new shoes (well, as soon as my ankle healed anyway).

So I patiently (or not-so-patiently, as the hubby would recount) waited for my ankle to heal. After a week and half, my body was dying to run again. (I never used to believe people who said running was addictive, but now that I’ve experienced withdrawal, I’m a believer!) So last Sunday, off I went to Northampton to find a new pair of shoes.



The Northampton Running Company is tucked in a small shop on King Street between Subway and Pam’s Kickin’ Kuts. They specialize in running shoes and apparel. You can get further info, directions, hours, etc. on the Northampton Running Company Web site.

When I walked in the store, I was greeted by Kristen, who quickly asked how she could help. I explained my ankle trials and tribulations of late. She had me take off the shoes I was wearing and she watched me walk barefoot so she could see how my foot moved. She said I had high arches and was a little bit of a supinator (which means my ankle turns out when I walk). Based on that, she recommended a well-cushioned stability running shoe. I told her my size and off she went to the back to pull out some options.

She came back with 4 pairs of running shoes. As I tried them on, we talked about running and Kristen, an experienced runner and marathoner, gave me some tips for running on the road. Turns out my ankle strain could have been from always running on the edge of the road, where it dips off. She suggested running down the middle of the road. As she put it, “The cars will move!” She also said to stay off sidewalks because the concrete is harder on your joints than asphalt. As they say, you learn something new every day.

With each shoe I tried, Kristen encouraged me to walk around the store or even go out on the sidewalk if I wanted. For 2 of the shoes I was seriously considering, I took a little test jog down the sidewalk. I think this was key to finding the right shoe. As soon as I started jogging with the New Balance 765’s on my feet—I knew they were the right ones. They were light and bouncy and fit my wide feet very comfortably. It almost felt like I wasn’t wearing a shoe at all. The shoes came to about $90, which I felt was a good price considering the personalized service I’d received. Some other perks at the Northampton Running Company are that you can return the shoe if you try it out a couple of times and decide it doesn’t work for you, and if you’re a member of the Northampton Athletic Club, you get a 10% discount.

In addition to a good selection of men's and women's running shoes, they also carry a wide selection of running shorts, pants, tops, socks and accessories like sunglasses, reflective vests, etc. I’m planning on running this winter (my first attempt at cold weather running) and I will definitely be returning to the Northampton Running Company for some cold weather gear. They seem to have everything a runner needs, along the knowledge to help you figure it all out. I wished I known about them sooner!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pepin Farm, Easthampton - Load up on farm fresh vegetables while you can!

One of the best things about living in the Pioneer Valley (aka the Valley) is the bounty of roadside farms, produce stands and farmer's markets that pop up in the late spring and offer wonderful fruits, vegetables and flowers through the early fall. Being mostly home-grown operations, many of these places don't have a lot of advertising, so you just have to stumble across them—or get a tip from a local in the know.

Earlier in the summer when we had just moved to Easthampton, I made the mistake of buying corn at the grocery store because I couldn't think of a place that was on my way home to buy it. My husband took one bite and said "no thanks." If you haven't had fresh, sweet butter & sugar corn from the Valley, you just don't know what you're missing. Once you try it - you'll never go back to grocery store corn.

As luck would have it, I took a new way to work a few days later and discovered the Pepin Farm on East Street in Easthampton. It's on the left as you're driving from Easthampton to Northampton (or on the right in reverse). There are a couple of signs, but they're right in front of the house, so you have to be going slow enough and looking for it or you'll miss the driveway. The farm stand is run out of the family garage and is open from 10am to 6pm Monday - Saturday, 10-5 on Sundays.



The selection at Pepin Farm, like all farm stands, varies with the season. Early in the summer they had berries such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. Then corn season came upon us and every morning the back of the shop was piled high with 2 types of corn—butter & sugar and white. I prefer the butter & sugar—so sweet and juicy, you don't need to add real butter to it. They've also had green peppers, cucumbers, squash & zucchini and tomatoes for most of the season.




Everything I've tried from the Pepin Farm has been incredibly fresh and perfectly ripe. No mealy tomatoes, squishy cucumbers or dried out corn like you might find in the local grocery store. And while the prices might be a little higher than the grocery store (for example, about $5 for a dozen ears of corn or $2.40 for a pound of tomatoes), it's well worth the price for the incredible taste.

Just remember to bring your own bags. The Pepin Farm is often low on bags, so "go green" and reuse your own while supporting local farmers. (That's a 1-2 go green punch, I'd say!)

Welcome!

I've been contemplating a blog for years now... and just finally got up the gumption to start one. My husband and I always talk about how glad we are that we've moved to the Pioneer Valley, how much there is to do and see - so I figured it was the perfect topic for a blog!

The plan is to review restaurants, shops and activities, and give people a glimpse into life in the Pioneer Valley. If you're planning to visit the Pioneer Valley (maybe making a trip to Yankee Candle or to visit one of the many colleges - UMASS Amherst, Hampshire College, Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke, etc.) and are looking for information about something specific, feel free to post a question!