Friday, October 31, 2008

Breakfast with The Leftover Queen at The Lone Wolf

Breakfast with a queen and a wolf - sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Well, let me spin you that tale...

Once upon a time (6 months ago) in a faraway land (Jamaica), a new blushing bride (me) and her handsome prince (Mr. valleywriter) went to a gathering for all of the newly married members of the kingdom (a Honeymooners Cocktail Hour at the resort we were staying at). There we met interesting people from other faraway lands (Florida, Texas, New York), many of whom had never heard of our little hamlet known as the Pioneer Valley.

But there was one couple who knew exactly where we were from because they had lived here themselves! The beautiful Leftover Queen and her handsome Italian prince granted us an audience to reminisce about our homeland. Later in our journey, we even had the honor of dining with The Leftover Queen & her prince.

OK - enough fairy tale talk. Here's the rest of the story in plain ol' valleywriter-speak:

We ended up chatting over breakfast one day and learned that we had a lot more in common than just having lived in the same area. Amongst other things, we discovered we were both writers. The Queen was a successful freelancer (something I think many writers aspire to) and she piqued my interest about blogging as a potentially viable method of expanding my professional development. We thought we'd run into them again before we left so we didn't exchange contact info, but it just didn't work out. So we went home thinking we'd met a great couple who we'd sadly never see again.

Fast forward a few months. We'd moved and I was finally feeling settled into the new house, so I decided to give blogging a try. After about a month of blogging with very few readers to show for it, I started investigating ways to get my blog out there. I found that I wound up having a lot of food-related content on my blog (what can I say - I love eating!!) and eventually I stumbled upon Foodbuzz, a community of food-related blogs, posts & recipes. When I went to join, whose photo did I see on the main login page? None other than that of The Leftover Queen herself!

A quick note to say hello led to me joining The Leftover Queen's Foodie Blog Roll and then making plans to meet up with The Leftover Queen & her husband for breakfast in Amherst during their annual trip to the Valley. I dare say it's one of the best stories I have about a burgeoning friendship.

For breakfast, we decided to give The Lone Wolf a try, as The Leftover Queen had fond memories of their breakfasts, though Mr. valleywriter & I had never been. I was impressed with the sheer number of selections at the The Lone Wolf. From the traditional egg, pancake, bacon breakfasts to the more unique vegan Egg's Benedict - there is truly something for every palate and dietary need.

I went with a the daily special frittata with spinach, sun dried tomatoes and feta, which came with home fries and toast.


Mr. valleywriter had the huevos rancheros.



Both dishes were very fresh and tasty. The portions were about the right size, though I was surprised to only get 1 slice of bread (cut in half to make "2 pieces of toast") with my breakfast. I really shouldn't complain though because the ample serving of potatoes more than made up for it. Also, I enjoyed an incredible cup of warm apple cider with my breakfast - highly recommended.

I have to admit that while breakfast was good, it was the company that I enjoyed most. Chatting with fellow foodies and otherwise incredibly nice, thoughtful and friendly people was what made the day for me. It's funny, I've really only chatted with them for probably a total of 3-4 hours, but I feel like they're old friends I've always known.

As our breakfast date came to a close, we got onto the topic of fellow food bloggers. We agreed that, in our experiences, this diverse section of the population seems to have the fortunate ability to work together and support each other in caring ways, without the negativity that so often accompanies online interactions. In my opinion, we have pioneering bloggers like The Leftover Queen to thank for forming the basis of this incredible community. So many thanks to The Leftover Queen & all of the many food bloggers who have accepted me into your community with open arms. Here's to more great tales of burgeoning friendships and excellent meals!


(The Leftover Queen on the left, ValleyWriter on the right)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chocolate Covered Halloween Pretzels


One of my bosses has the good fortune of having her birthday fall on Halloween, so naturally her birthday celebrations must be filled with a good dose of all things Halloween—classic colors like orange, black and purple... and of course yummy treats!

This year I decided to try something new (for me) and whip up batch of chocolate covered pretzels decorated with some Halloween-y sprinkles. I'd intended just to get orange & black sprinkles, but then I found a cool package of purple, green, black and white sprinkles with mini pumpkin confetti pieces mixed in and I simply couldn't resist.

I wasn't sure if these would work out, so I made them a couple of days ahead. But they turned out just fine and set up fairly quickly, so I definitely could've done them the night before. They were also very easy to put together (admittedly it would've gone more quickly if Piper, the new kitten, hadn't been fascinated by the sound of sprinkles being poured and hadn't been trying to climb up my legs...)

I made 2 batches—1 with white chocolate chips and 1 with chunks from a big bar of Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate. The directions for both are the same and would be for any chocolate you want to use.

You'll need:

6 oz. chocolate chips or broken up chunks
1 Tbsp. butter-flavored shortening (I use Crisco because it's the only kind I've found that doesn't have trans fat)
1/2 of an 8 oz. package pretzel rods (about 12 rods)
Sprinkles of your choosing (I give Wilton's Halloween Pumpkin Mix sprinkles 2 thumbs up!)
Wax paper

Directions
Step 1: Break the pretzel rods in half to make about 24 pieces. (Use a sharp knife to crack the pretzel in the middle.)

Step 2: Combine chocolate & shortening in a microwave safe bowl.
Heat in microwave at 80% power for 1 minute. Stir to melt chips/chunks. If whole chips/chunks remain after stirring, microwave 10-15 seconds longer and stir again. (Repeat as needed.)

Tips: Be careful not to overheat the chocolate or you might scorch it. If you don't want to use a microwave, you can melt the chocolate in a double boiler by stirring constantly just until melted. (Melting over direct heat is not recommended because scorching happens VERY quickly... trust me, I found out the hard way!!)

Step 3: Dip the cut end of a pretzel rod into the chocolate, coating about 1/2 of the rod. (Leaving the top half uncoated makes a great handle for easy eating!) Let any excess chocolate drain off by twisting the rod over the bowl of chocolate. Over a separate bowl or plate, pour sprinkles onto chocolate while twisting the rod.

Step 4: Place dipped rods onto wax paper and allow to dry completely before moving.

Tip:
For the white chocolate chips, I found the drying time was only about 15-20 minutes. But the dark chocolate took longer to fully dry - over an hour. So plan accordingly.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Celebrating "Oktober" with Hatfield Kielbasa & Sauerkraut

Before we bought our home, we lived for about a year in an apartment in Hatfield, MA. Hatfield was my introduction to living in the valley, though Mr. valleywriter had lived there once before. When we first moved, Mr. valleywriter kept going on and on about how excited he was to be living so close to Hatfield Beef again. I don't normally get that excited about meat, so I really had no idea what the big deal was. That is until I tried their homemade Polish sausage (also known as kielbasa).


This mildly spicy sausage blows away anything you'll ever find at your local grocery store. Hillshire Farms is like a squishy, greasy ball of fat & filler next to this stuff. The kielbasa from Hatfield Beef is denser in texture yet leaner in fat and manages to convey a rich yet still delicate flavor.
Now I must admit that if you want to sample Hatfield's finest, you do have to get past the appearance of their retail store/butchery. It's housed in a rust-colored, rather rundown, barn-like building at 42 Hatfield Road in Hatfield, MA. The sign is barely legible and the clapboards are in desperate need of a new coat of paint. And when you walk in the door, you know that you're in a building where meat is cut. But, it's always clean, the meat is always fresh and the help is always, well, helpful! They'll cut any meat they have just the way you want it and the prices are usually better than the local grocery store.


We usually stock up when when we visit, so when I stumbled upon a stockpiled link of sausage in the freezer this weekend, I decided it was the perfect time to bring Oktoberfest to the Pioneer Valley with some kielbasa & sauerkraut.


Oktoberfest Kielbasa & Sauerkraut


(Serves 2 hungry adults)


Ingredients
1/2 - 3/4 of a rope of kielbasa
1 16 oz. package refrigerated sauerkraut
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 small golden delicious apple, chopped
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar


Directions
Drain liquid from sauerkraut and add to crockpot. Add caraway seeds, apple and brown sugar. Cut kielbasa into 3-4" hunks and add to crockpot. Pour apple cider vinegar over everything and stir. Cook on high heat for 3 hours.


Serve with a pint of your favorite beer & enjoy!



No crockpot? You can also bake this in a covered dish in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 - 1.5 hours or until the sausage is cooked through.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A new addition to the ValleyWriter family


Mr. valleywriter and I decided that valleykitty was getting restless in this big new house all by herself and needed a friend. So we headed out to the Dakin Animal Shelter in Leverett, MA in search of a new addition.
Our only criteria going in was that the new cat be smaller than valleykitty, since we didn't want valleykitty to be at a disadvantage in her own home. Valleykitty is a petite 8 lbs., so that pretty much limited us to cats under a year old. The Dakin Shelter actually had 3 rooms of cats for us to look through, but we quickly narrowed our choices down when we were mesmerized by 2 little kittens eager for our attention.

One of the little ones was a tiny 8-week old black kitten who was loving, affectionate & playful - but not too kitten-crazy. We then noticed that she also had extra toes! Polydactyl cats are sometimes also called Hemingway cats, after the famous Ernest Hemingway and his polydactyl cat Snowball who lived in Key West, FL. Mr. valleywriter & I were married in Key West - so we felt it was kismet and this little black puffball was meant just for us.


She loves to play... and she loves the computer. Yup, she's clearly our child!

While the innocent usually remain nameless on this blog (and often faceless, as you'll notice Mr. valleywriter never shows his full face... kind of like Mr. Big on Sex & the City never revealing his real name...), we can't have 2 valleykitties. So, the original valleykitty, Zoe, warmly welcomes her new baby sister, Piper, to the family. Welcome home Piper!!




Our early Halloween treat!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ralphine's Cafe & Deli

Mr. valleywriter and I spent a nice afternoon walking the Manhan Rail Trail in Easthampton, enjoying the fresh air and brilliant fall foliage.
And after a good 3 mile walk, we'd worked up an appetite and a desire to warm up. So where the trail crosses Union Street, we headed uptown in search of lunch. Ralphine's caught our eye at the top of the hill where Union Street meets Rt. 10.
The promise of a fresh warm panini on a cool fall day called to us... and we weren't disappointed. Ralphine's is a curious meld of a small town deli and urban flavor. This shows in the food and the decor. The counters, tables and chairs look like they've been there since the 70s, but artwork on the walls shows a modern flair. And the menu has old favorites like ham & cheese and a Thanksgiving-inspired turkey & cranberry, but also includes some more innovative options.

My pick was a turkey panini with bacon, avocado, tomato, lettuce and horseradish mayo. The ciabatta it came on was the perfect mix of crunchy and chewy and all of the ingredients were fresh and flavorful. Having eaten most of my paninis lately at Panera, I was impressed with the difference fresh and not-overly salted ingredients made.

Mr. valleywriter and I took our time over lunch, sharing friendly banter with the folks at the counter and catching up on the paper.


Just like the Silver Spoon, Ralphine's is one of those places that makes me feel like a local. Easthampton may very well be starting to become home.... one restaurant at a time :-)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

BPA & Food Containers - Hazard or Hype?

We all heard the news reports that a certain water bottle company popular with hikers took some of their products off the market after they were found to leach BPA (bisphenol-A). Not using this brand of bottles, I didn't pay too much attention.

But then in the latest issues of 2 magazines I get every month, there were articles about BPA in other products, such as can linings and other types of plastics, and the potential risks posed to humans. Now these aren't exactly scholarly magazines, but seeing 2 in-depth articles in a row piqued my concerns. I use plastic containers nearly on a daily basis. I thought it was my way of helping the environment. Rather than using plastic baggies to transport my lunch or buying premade lunches, I bring my own food from home in my reusable plastic containers. And since dishwashers are more water-efficient than hand washing, I throw them in the top rack of the dishwasher because they say right on the bottom they're top-rack safe.

Could my efforts to go green be hurting my health? Or was this just a new hyped up worry that would turn out to be much less cause for concern once more was known? Like the good little scientist/researcher I learned to be while pursuing my degree in Biology & Writing, off I went in search of more information from reliable, authoritative sources.

First stop - the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Food packaging is their regulatory domain, so I wanted to see what they had to say. Turns out that for now, they're sticking by their original evaluation that BPA is not harmful at doses humans are commonly exposed to, but they are continuing to investigate "new research" and have developed a new task force to follow up on the claims that are currently being made. OK... this tells me they're not committing to anything yet, but something out there has piqued their interest.

On to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Jackpot. This is what's probably piqued the FDA's interest. In a September 2008 report, the National Toxicology Program (a division of NIH) issued a report expressing:
  • "...some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A..."
  • "...minimal concern for effects on the mammary gland and an earlier age for puberty for females in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A..."
  • "...negligible concern that exposure of pregnant women to bisphenol A will result in fetal or neonatal mortality, birth defects, or reduced birth weight and growth in their offspring.... [or] reproductive effects in non-occupationally exposed adults..."

So for adults, NIH is saying there's probably not much to worry about, but for kids and kids-to-be, the potential for risks may well exist. They suggest that consumers concerned about the issue limit use of polycarbonate plastic containers (often labeled with a #7), don't microwave or otherwise expose these containers to heat, reduce the use of canned goods and use glass, metal or ceramic containers whenever possible for hot foods & liquids. But they're not calling for the outlawing of these containers...

So I move on to 1 last source. Per Mr. valleywriter's request, I check with the American Medical Association. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found a correlation between increased levels of BPA in urine and certain metabolic disorders, including heart disease & type-2 diabetes. The study notes that, due to the nature of the research, the results cannot conclude causality, but that future research should be done to further investigate the link.

OK - that's enough for me.

Here's what my bottom line is: The experts don't know for sure if there's great cause for concern in humans, but there's reliable evidence to suggest BPA could be a potential hazard to certain humans in certain situations. That's enough for me to change my habits. If I can help cut my risks, why not do it? So you'll find me this weekend scoping out the Pyrex containers to replace my old plasticware - at least for things that go in the microwave and dishwasher. And anything that's been in the microwave or dishwasher... say hello to the recycling bin.

I encourage you to do your own research and make your own decisions. Here are some of the sources I looked at:

http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/bpa.html

http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/AC/08/briefing/2008-0038b1_01_00_index.htm

http://www.fda.gov/OHRMS/DOCKETS/98fr/E8-24506.htm

http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/media/questions/sya-bpa.cfm

http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/300.11.1353

http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/300.11.1303

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cran-Apple Crisp

We're still working through our recent haul of apples (if you didn't know this already - apples keep for a long time in cold storage... such as a basement in New England). Tonight I decided to make a twist on apple crisp. This particular apple crisp is super easy to whip up. Unlike many recipes, this one doesn't have oats, but if you're an oat-crisp lover, you can add 1/2 cup of old fashioned oats to the topping before baking.

Cran-Apple Crisp

Ingredients
4 c. apples, peeled and sliced (about 3 large apples)
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/3 c. Craisins®
1/2 c. water
1/3 c. white sugar
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. butter
3/4 c. flour

Directions
Put craisins in water for 10-15 minutes to help plump them up.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease 8x8 baking dish.
Place apples in dish and sprinkle with cinnamon. Pour craisins and water over apples and gently toss.
In separate mixing bowl, beat sugars and butter together with electric mixer until creamy. Beat in flour just until crumbly. (Crumbs should be pea-sized.)
Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over apples & craisins.
Bake for 35-40 minutes or until topping is golden brown and apples are tender.


As with many of my favorite apple desserts, this one goes great with vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #7

Old man winter is trying to reach his icy claws into our lives a little early this year. We woke up this weekend to see the lawn covered in an icy white layer of frost and it's been that way every morning since. The overnight lows are in the low 20s and the daytime highs only get us up to the low 50s. So needless to say, it's a bit nippy in the house these days.

And though I would be content to freeze (I'm always cold anyway, so why bother trying), Mr. valleywriter has a thing for being comfortable... or at least having the room temperature above 60 degrees (whimp!). So we broke down this weekend and turned the heat on. All was hunky doorey until I walked by the door that leads to our basement and felt a cold draft on my feet. This simply would not do, so I quickly set up making my very own draft stopper.

So our Go Green & Save Some Green Tip for this week is a little tutorial on DIY draft stoppers. Keeping the warm air in your living space and the cold air out will obviously save on energy consumption and therefore on energy costs. What's more, I made my draft stopper out of materials I had lying around the house, so that gets a double dose of green power from recycling!
First I should note that my instructions are for people with basic sewing skills or no sewing skills (like me), so it includes the use of fabric glue for extra hold or in place of thread, if desired. If you have a sewing machine or you sew nice tight stitches, no need to glue. (I'm blaming my poor sewing job on my RA - it's hard to sew when your joints don't work right.... that's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

You will need:
-Enough fabric to make a tube the width of the door/window you want to use the draft stopper on (I used 2 old hand towels that were in the rag pile)
-Filling material (I used some styrofoam I had waiting to be recycled)
-Needle & thread and/or fabric glue

Directions:
1. If needed, sew and/or glue your fabric together to make it long enough to fit the opening you're trying to cover. You'll want to leave a few inches of fabric on either end to allow for stuffing and "fudge room" (also known as "oops allowance"). If your fabric is longer than the opening, cut it to size.
(Awww look - valleykitty is trying to help! Maybe she's a better seamstress than me....)



2. Fold your fabric in half lengthwise so the outside pattern (if there is one) is facing the inside.
3. Sew and/or glue the long ends of the fabric together to make a tube. (If gluing, let dry overnight before proceeding.)
4. Turn the tube inside out so fabric pattern is facing out.
5. Sew and/or glue one end (AND ONLY 1 END!) closed.
(If gluing, let dry overnight.)
6. Fill tube with desired stuffing.
7. Sew and/or glue remaining end closed.

That's all. Simple, easy & free when you use things you already have on hand!


(Before & After)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Quirky Coffee Hut - Mt. Joe to Go

Near the Holyoke/Easthampton line, Rt. 141 runs almost all the way up Mt. Tom and back down the other side. At the top is a large banquet hall, a restaurant, a parking lot for hiking trails and a small brown guardhouse-looking shack....
But the only security provided by this shack is the knowledge that your caffeine fix will always be met.


The little brown shack is the home of Mt. Joe To Go, a unique walk-up/drive-thru takeout coffee shop. One window (closest to the road) services hikers and the other window services cars. It's actually a prime location - the only coffee shop between the I-91 exit for Easthampton and Easthampton center itself. Not to mention there's a fabulous view right next door (it's best from the restaurant parking lot). And for such a small operation, they actual have a lot to offer, like hot and iced coffees in a variety of flavors, cappuccino, lattes, fruit smoothies, cookies and muffins, to name a few.
I can be a bit picky about my coffee, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect here, but I wanted to give it a try just for curiosity's sake. The first time we went a few weeks ago, I ordered a gingerbread iced coffee and Mr. valleywriter ordered a strawberry mango smoothie. There was only 1 woman working and there was a fairly good line behind us, so after waiting 5 minutes for our order, I didn't have the heart to tell her she got it all messed up when she gave me a hot gingerbread coffee and Mr. valleywriter got a strawberry raspberry smoothie.
We were disappointed that we didn't get what we'd ordered, but we had to admit that what we did get was decent. So when we were craving another caffeine fix on an early Saturday morning jaunt, we decided to give it another try. This time we each got a different flavor of hot coffee (pumpkin spice for me, french roast for Mr. valleywriter). Our order came out within a minute and was right on the money - and quite tasty. We were in, out, and on our way.
Since the coffee's been good both times, I'm going to chalk the first visit up to a busy worker (who maybe hadn't had her coffee yet). I have to say, now that I've tried it, I feel a little safer knowing Mt. Joe is watching from his guard shack high on Mt. Tom, securing my God-given rights to regular caffeine and sugar fixes. Thanks Mt. Joe!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Amazing Pumpkin Apple Muffins

If you've been following along, you know that pumpkins and apples are big right now in the Pioneer Valley. Apple picking season is in full swing and thousands of pumpkins have been harvested from the field, with many still nestled in their vines, waiting to be found.















With the freshest ingredients right at my doorstep, fall is the perfect time to make my favorite muffins - pumpkin apple. This recipe makes an amazing batch of flavorful, moist, dense muffins with a crunchy streusel topping. They stay wonderful for days (if you can manage to make them last that long!).


Amazing Pumpkin Apple Muffins
(Makes 12 large, bakery-sized muffins or 18 regular muffins)

Ingredients

Muffin batter:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 Tbsp. pumpkin pie spice (or a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and allspice)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 cup cooked pumpkin (you can also use canned)
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 large apples, peeled and chopped into small pieces (about 2 cups)

Streusel:
1/4 c. light brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
4 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp. cold butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the muffin batter:
Combine flour, sugar, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.
Put eggs in a separate bowl and beat lightly. Add maple syrup, pumpkin and oil.
Stir egg/syrup/pumpkin/oil mixture into dry ingredients just until moist.
Gently stir in apples.

To make the streusel:
Cut butter into small chunks. Add butter, sugar, flour and cinnamon to food processor. Pulse a few times until the mixture is crumbly. (If you don't have a food processor, you can cut the butter into the sugar/flour/cinnamon with a fork or knife until mixture is crumbly.)

Putting it all together:
Spray muffin tins generously with oil or cooking spray. (I prefer not to use muffin liners, but you can if you want.) Fill muffin tins about 3/4 of the way full with muffin batter. Sprinkle streusel evenly over each muffin.
Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Cool at least 15 minutes before removing from pan. (Running a knife around the edges of the tins will help the muffins come out more easily.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Harvest Moon Chicken Noodle Soup

The other night we had a beautiful harvest moon here in the valley:



The cool, crisp air and bright moonlight inspired me to make a nice warm pot of chicken noodle soup. I must admit that I've never made chicken noodle soup entirely from scratch before, so this was really an experiment. I thought it turned out well, so I've decided to own up to my soup-making and declare this recipe "Harvest Moon Chicken Noodle Soup."

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. butter

7-8 cups homemade chicken stock (low-sodium canned will do in a pinch)

1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped (gotta hide the onion from Mr. valleywriter!)

2-3 celery stalks, chopped

3 carrots, chopped

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. sage

1/2 tsp. tarragon

1 1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper

Salt to taste

1 1/2 - 2 cups cooked chicken, diced or ripped up

2 cups whole-wheat wide noodles

1-2 Tbsp. cornstarch mixed in warm water, if desired (for thicker, hardier soup)

Directions:

In a large pot, melt butter. Saute onion and celery 3-4 minutes. Add chicken stock, carrots, bay leaves, sage, tarragon, pepper and salt. Bring soup to a simmer and continue simmering for about 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender-crisp. Add chicken and whole-wheat noodles and cook about 10 more minutes until noodles are tender. Stir in cornstarch and water mixture to thicken soup, if desired.

Serve with warm ciabatta or french bread. Yum!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Brandy Apples Flambe & a la Mode

As you know, we brought home a bounty of apples this weekend from our apple picking adventure in Southampton. So what to do with all those apples? Well, I have no shortage of ideas, so the real question was what to do first.

Mr. valleywriter & I decided it had been too long since we'd torched something, so flambe was the order of the evening.
(Disclaimer: Flambe involves open flame. Use extreme caution. Never move a pan while the flame is ignited. Keep clothing, hair and other flammable objects away from the pan. In other words, don't be stupid! If you do not have the mental capacity to handle fire, do not attempt.)

Brandy Apples Flambe
Ingredients:
2 large apples (I used Jonagolds)
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. white sugar
1/4 c. brandy - poured in a measuring cup - DO NOT pour straight from the bottle into the pan
Ice cream & whipped cream, if desired
Tools:
Saute pan with long handle
Long-handled lighter
ABC fire extinguisher and/or metal pot cover to extinguish flames (just in case!)

Directions:
1. Peel and slice apples.
2. Melt butter in saute pan.
3. Add sugars and stir until well mixed.
4. Add apple slices and cook until desired tenderness. (We prefer a little crisp left in the apples, so I only cooked them for about 6-7 minutes.)
5. CAREFULLY pour brandy into pan and ignite the fumes at the edge of the pan (not the brandy itself) with long-handled lighter.



6. Watch (from a reasonable distance) with glee as the brandy makes pretty colors. Once the fire goes out, your Brandy Apples Flambe is done & ready to eat.

Serve over vanilla ice cream and top with whipped cream for the perfect fall treat!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #6

Continuing the energy saving theme from last week, this week's tip is about using less electricity with your appliances. We all know that when something is turned on, it uses electricity. But did you know that even an appliance that's turned off (like an LCD TV) can use up to 40% of the energy it uses to fully run? Yup - your TV could be costing you, and the planet, big.



So what can you do? Unplug appliances when you're not using them. Does your TV need to stay plugged in overnight when you're asleep? Does the coffee maker need to be plugged in after you've brewed your morning pot? How about the toaster - if you only have toast on Saturday, does it make sense to leave it plugged in all week? No, no and a great big NO!



At first you might forget, but once you start doing it regularly, it will become a habit. If you have a TV/stereo set up, you can make it a little easier on yourself by plugging the components into a power strip and then just unplugging the power strip at night.



Oh yeah - this goes for cell phone chargers, too. Make it a habit to unplug the charger from the wall when you unplug the phone from the charger. Simple tips that can save you money and, added up over many people, can help us help our planet. Pass it on.

Monday, October 13, 2008

True New England Apple Picking at its Finest

We were blessed with a gorgeous Columbus Day weekend this year and decided to hurry out to the orchard to go apple picking before the season (and the good weather) was gone. This was our first time picking apples in the Valley, so we weren't really sure where to go, but we found a great listing of pick-your-own apple orchards around the state and decided to try Roundhill Orchard in Southampton, MA.

It's very easy to find right off Rt. 10. As soon as you pull in, you can tell that Round Hill Orchard is a classic New England orchard. No fancy pre-made signs or elaborate Halloween/fall decorations or amusement-park-like activities for the kids. Unlike some of the orchards we've visited in the last couple of years, Roundhill Orchard clearly takes a back-to-basics approach. It reminds me of our annual fall trips as a kid, 3 car loads full of aunts and cousins headed out to the orchard to pick as many bushels, climb as many trees and eat as many apples as we could. This is what apple picking should be.


We were warmly greeted by the owner (and a noisy gaggle of resident geese!).


She (the owner, not the geese) explained where to find which apples - each row of trees was also labeled in case we forgot - and gave us bags to get started. Out into the field we traipsed, taking in the sights, like a birds nest resting ever so delicately above a beautiful ripe red orb, "twins" growing on almost the same stem and leftover midnight deer snacks, still hanging onto their branches.

We filled our bags with large crisp Jonagolds and small snack-size Empires, and managed to find at least a few sweet yellow Ginger Golds and classic New England McIntoshes still on the trees (both are at the end of their seasons). In fact, the only Macs we could find were in the top branches, but that didn't stop me!

An hour or so later, our bags full and my legs deliciously tired from climbing, we happily headed home to enjoy sweet bites from the fruits of our labors (pun intended).


Thanks for carrying the apples, Mr. valleywriter!!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

ArtWalk Easthampton

I'd seen signs advertising upcoming Saturdays for ArtWalk Easthampton throughout the summer and always wanted to check it out, but it just never worked out for us. It's held every 2nd Saturday of the month and this particular 2nd Saturday (yesterday) turned out to be a beautiful day to be out and about. I was expecting the ArtWalk to be a lively, decent-sized crowd of interesting artists and art-fans out enjoying good art, good weather and maybe some good food and drink.

We headed down to Cottage Street a little after 5pm. We weren't exactly sure where we were going, but it turned out to be very easy since all of the stores and galleries had convenient "ArtWalk Easthampton" flags hung outside.





We started our art walk at Off The Map Tattoo, which was the first shop on Cottage Street with the flag out. It was a somewhat odd first experience, we walked in to see someone being tattooed in the front "bay," a woman at the front desk clicking away on her iMac and a few paintings hung on one wall. All the woman at the front desk said was "That's weird. Usually people come to us last." I really don't remember who the artists were, but recall thinking the art fit the location in terms of its graphic novel/tattoo-inspired qualities.

After a bit of a rocky start, we headed down to KW Home where an artist was displaying nature photographs. Again, it was a strange experience when we walked in and no one spoke to us, though the artist was clearly on hand to "present" her work. The photographs were OK, but we appreciated the opportunity to check out KW Home's wares more. (We rarely have the opportunity to check out the Cottage Street shops during normal business hours.)

I could tell that Mr. valleywriter was losing interest, so we headed to the next stop on the tour. Again a woman was showing her photographs, this time at the ReMax Realty office. Again, the artist was clearly there, but no one spoke a word to us as we entered. We politely admired the art on the walls and quickly moved on, out of the cramped, uncomfortably silent confines of a real-estate-office-turned-art-gallery.



At this point even my interest was lagging, but up next was La Casita Azteca, the new Mexican restaurant that's due to open soon.


When we entered the gates leading up to La Casita Azteca, we were warmly greeted by several people. The owner's wife apologetically explained that they were still setting up the restaurant and were running a little late for ArtWalk. Nonetheless, she showed us around the restaurant, shared the menu with us and encourage us to return next week for the restaurant's official opening. Although we didn't actually see any art at this ArtWalk location, it was honestly the first experience that resembled what I'd expected - people having talking, enjoying themselves and sharing in our community.

Heartened by this experience, we headed to the next stop, the Nashawannuck Gallery, with renewed energy. This location was buzzing with activity and art.


There were photographs, watercolors, ceramics, glass work and oil paintings from a wide range of local artists. Much of what was there was part of the regular gift shop, but there was also a special showing of Greg Stone's driftwood bird carvings and blues & baseball oil paintings. We spent quite a while roaming around the Nashawannuck Gallery before moving on to Mt. Tom's Homemade Ice Cream, where watercolors were on display. Mt. Tom's was empty, the crowd was gone and our energy waned with it, so I grabbed a cone of heath bar crunch (delicious, as always!) and we headed back to our car.

While there were many more locations on the ArtWalk Easthampton list, we felt that we'd seen enough. We were a little disappointed that, except for 2 places, we spoke to nearly no one and felt little of the community atmosphere we'd hoped for. For future ArtWalks, I think it would be helpful to have artists on hand - and engaged - if they want to make this venture a true success.

I wonder if it was just a result of this being a long weekend and people being out of town. Or perhaps it was just an odd off-day for most. In any case, we'll probably give it one more try. But next time, I'll try to go with no preconceived notions. Worst case scenario, I'll just get another delicious scoop of Mt. Toms!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

La Fiorentina - A Dessert Lover's Dream

La Fiorentina Pastry Shop, located on Armory Street in Northampton, MA (with a sister location in Springfield that I've yet to visit), is *the* place for dessert in Northampton. This family-run bakery boasts more kinds of desserts that you can imagine. There's homemade Italian cookies, tiramisu, tortes, cannolis, rum cake, carrot cake, cheesecake and cream horns, just to name a very few.

They also have coffee, espresso & cappucino that you can enjoy with your dessert. In the summertime, they often have gelato as well.

Being the dessert lover (fanatic?) that I am, I have been to La Fiorentina many, many times. My husband took me here for the first time on one of our first few dates. We weren't living in the valley at that time, so it was a totally new experience for me. I like to joke that's when I fell in love with him. Any man who brings his woman to a dessert mecca and doesn't bat an eyelash when she eats an entire (large) hunk of cake is a keeper in my book!

I've tried many different things over the last couple of years: tiramisu, chocolate cake with raspberry cream filling and chocolate ganache icing (that's the chocolate snow-ball looking thing in the picture above that's topped whipped cream and a cherry), chocolate covered cannolis, butter cake with chocolate cream filling and more, I'm sure.

On this last visit I had a mini-rum cake with a fudgy chocolate filling and chocolate ganache icing sprinkled with nuts. Heaven in every bite! It brought me back to our honeymoon in Jamaica, where I tasted rum cake for the first time. It was moist and flavorful without being too rum-y. Mr. valleywriter and I dove right into it and before I knew it, it was gone and I'd forgotten to snap a picture. Oh well - you'll just have to go try one for yourself :-)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Leaf Peeping Lentil Soup

Leaf peeping, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is when you go around looking at the changing foliage during the fall in New England. I think we've just about hit the peak of the fall foliage season here in the Pioneer Valley, as the trees are brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, with just a hint of green here and there. The peak of the season is the best time for leaf peeping because the trees still have most of their leaves and the colors are the richest. Within the next week or two, the trees will likely start to lose their leaves and what's left on the trees will turn more muted and brown.

In honor of leaf peeping, I whipped up a batch of a Moroccan/Indian-inspired lentil soup that incorporates the colors and flavors of fall in New England.

Ingredients

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

  • 6 cups water

  • 1 1/2 cups red lentils

  • 1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, drained

  • 1 (15 ounce) can Great Northern beans

  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes

  • 1/2 cup chopped carrots

  • 1/2 cup chopped celery

  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

Heat olive oil in large stock pot over medium-high heat.
Saute ginger and garlic until aromatic (about 1 minute).
Add remaining ingredients.
Bring to a boil.



Cover and simmer 1 hour or until lentils are tender.
Put about 1/2 of the soup into a food processor or blender and blend until fairly smooth.
Return blended soup to pot.
Serve & enjoy!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Flowers" for Foodies - Edible Arrangements

We recently had an open house to celebrate our recent move and first home purchase. We had such a great experience working with our realtors that we decided to invite them along with our family and friends. They couldn't make it that day, but a few days later, they sent a wonderful congratulations "bouquet" of chocolate covered strawberries!



Don't get me wrong, I love flowers (hear that, Mr. valleywriter??), but these were a great alternative. They came from our local Edible Arrangements store in nearby Hadley. There was a bit of a mix-up on the first delivery (the driver left the arrangement on the front step and we didn't find it until morning, by which time the strawberries had gotten mushy), but the store was very apologetic and fixed their mistake with a redelivery of an incredibly yummy assortment of plain chocolate, chocolate & coconut, and walnut & chocolate-covered berries.

Here's another shot in case you want to drool some more:



So if you're looking for a great gift for the favorite Foodie in your life, give Edible Arrangements a try!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Go Green & Save Some Green Tip of the Week #5

What's tonight's tip? Well, as the days get shorter, we're turning on the lights more often in the morning and earlier after work, so let's talk about 1 simple way to save energy costs and help the environment. Can you guess what it is?


Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Yup, those funny spiral bulbs that you see next to the regular (incandescent) bulbs in the store.





(To be accurate, not all CFLs look funny from the outside. As you can kind of see, the floodlight bulb actually has the spiral tube encased in a normal floodlight "shell.")

What's so great about them? Well, they use up to 80% less electricity than regular bulbs and last 7-8 times as long. This means you'll see savings in your electric bill, have to buy fewer bulbs and have to change bulbs less frequently. The low energy requirements also means there will be less emissions released from power plants and the fewer bulbs required means less waste to put in landfills.

We like CFLs so much, we bought them in bulk ($9.99 for an 8-pack at BJs!) and have put them throughout our house.



I know what you're thinking. $10 for 8 light bulbs? Why bother when I can get a 4-pack of regular bulbs for a buck?! Remember what I said before - you'll use 80% less energy, which means saving up to 80% of your lighting-related electricity costs! The Sylvania 13W bulbs shown above use 75% less energy than the regular 60W bulbs they replaced and will save, on average, $37 PER BULB in energy costs over the life of the bulbs. So for the fixture above, that's a whopping $111 savings for a one-time extra investment of less than $1 per bulb.

One thing to note is that when CFLs do finally die, you can't just throw them away. They contain small amounts of mercury, so they have to be disposed of properly. Most towns offer hazardous waste days a couple of times a year, or you can recycle the bulbs at select locations. In the valley, many Aubuchon Hardware Stores have CFL recycling programs (www.aubuchon.com). Or you can go to www.earth911.org to find another disposal/recycling location near you.