Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Valley's First Snow of the Season!

With 21 days to go until the official start to winter, we had our first snow that stuck to the ground:

We also had sleet & freezing rain - all within a matter of a couple of hours (gotta live New England!). Fortunately, we managed to get up some holiday decorations before the weather started. I braved the rain/sleet/snow tonight to grab some pics:




(I know I need to work on the lighting on the little trees in front, but I think I'll wait for a day when it's not precipitating.... hopefully we'll get one of those before Christmas!)

Turkey Leftovers Day 4 - Turkey Tetrazzini

I think today may be the last day Mr. valleywriter will put up with turkey leftovers. I could eat turkey for another week (and I may be eating it for lunches at work this week), but Mr. valleywriter is starting to say "turkey - again?!?!" I tried to shake things up for lunch today by turning some of our leftovers into a quick turkey tetrazzini. I used corn and carrots we had left from Turkey Day, but you can use whatever veggies you like (peas would be good) or no veggies at all. I think the flavors here are different enough that you don't feel like you're eating Thanksgiving leftovers. Enjoy!

Turkey Tetrazzini

Ingredients
8 oz. (1/2 a box) whole wheat spaghetti
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. flour
1 1/2 c. turkey stock (you can also use canned broth)
1/2 c. fat-free half and half
1/2 c. milk
1 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. corn, cooked
1/2 c. sliced carrots, cooked
2 c. cooked turkey, cubed

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a medium casserole dish.
Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente pasta. (I like Barilla whole wheat spaghetti, which takes about 6 minutes to cook.) Drain and add to to casserole dish.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk together well so there are no lumps. Slowly pour in turkey stock, whisking constantly. Once flour and butter are completely dissolved in stock, pour in half and half and milk. Cook until sauce comes to a boil, whisking constantly. Add in 3/4 c. Parmesan cheese and remove from heat. (Taste the sauce at this point to make sure it's salted to your taste. If you use low sodium stock/broth, it may be bland. Add salt & pepper if desired.)
Pour sauce over spaghetti. Stir in corn, carrots and turkey until well mixed. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until sauce is bubbly and cheese is browned.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Basic Turkey Stock for Stock Virgins

Everyone knows that you can use your Thanksgiving turkey carcass to make turkey stock or turkey soup, but how many of you actually do it? I know that before a couple of years ago, I was too intimidated by the thought of it to actually try it. But once I finally did, I was amazed at how simple it was. Again, it's one of those things where the fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself. I promise stock virgins - this is easy and so worth it!


First, as you finish up your turkey, hang onto whatever you have left of the carcass - even if it's just the leg and wing bones. When you have a couple of hours where you'll be at home, give this a shot. (If you don't have time this weekend, just throw the bones in the freezer for now and defrost them when you're ready.) The measurements here are approximates and are what I used for the carcass of a 17 pound turkey. You'll want to adjust to your taste and to the size of your carcass.


Basic Turkey Stock

Ingredients:
1 turkey carcass
2 Tbsp. chives (you can use a cut up onion, but Mr. valleywriter doesn't do onions, so I use chives)
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. pepper
2 cloves garlic
5 bay leaves
4-5 carrots, roughly cut
4-5 celery stalks, roughly cut
cold water

Directions
Place the turkey carcass in a large pot. (If you're like me and don't have a pot big enough for a giant turkey carcass, you can cut the carcass up into pieces to make it fit.)

Pour enough water into the pot to cover the carcass (if a couple of bones stick out - no biggie).

Add seasonings and vegetables and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat so stock just simmers. For the first 30-45 minutes, check the pot every 10-15 minutes and skim off any white foam that collects at the top:
Let the stock boil for another 4 hours or so, adding water as needed to keep bones covered. When the time is up, carefully do a taste test (cool a spoonful first!). If it smells and tastes like stock, it's done. If it's too weak, stop adding water and keep the stock simmering to help condense the flavors.


When done simmering, pull the big pieces of bone out of the pot. Pour the remaining contents through a strainer into a large bowl that will fit in your fridge. For a very clear broth, line your strainer with cheesecloth to catch any herbs or small bits of meat. I like the herbs, so I leave them in:


Allow the stock to cool for about 15-20 minutes before putting in the fridge. Refrigerating the stock overnight will allow the fat to rise to the top and solidify, so you can easily spoon it off. Then you can either keep the broth in the fridge and use it within a couple of days, or you can freeze it for up to 2 months.

You're not done yet, though! Simmering the carcass for hours will pull off any leftover bits of meat and they'll get caught in your strainer. You can pick these pieces out and save them for soup. (I don't recommend using them for anything other than soup because of the texture they take on - good for soup, not for much else.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Our First Thanksgiving - 1 Bandaid, 1 Bloody Nose, But It's Still All Good!

As I mentioned in my last blog, this was our first year hosting Thanksgiving. The first blunder was buying a self-basting turkey when I had planned to brine the turkey. Oops. No worries - at least I figured it out before I went to brine the turkey. No harm, no salty fowl :-)

Today started off great. We slept in until 8 (yes, that's sleeping in) and took our time getting ready. The turkey came out of the fridge and was fully defrosted - yay! We got the turkey, stuffing and dough for the homemade rolls all started on time. We even got to enjoy a few minutes of the Macy's parade.

Then we decided to start peeling potatoes.... which ended in a bloody nose for Mr. valleywriter and a bandaid for me. Sounds like a good story, eh? Sorry to disappoint. No - we didn't have a brawl over potatoes. It's been dry in the house lately - hence Mr. valleywriter's effusive mucous membranes. And I just got careless with the knife after Mr. valleywriter left me alone with the potatoes.

After that little hiccup, we got back on track. I finished up the cooking and after Mr. valleywriter slowed the dam his nose had become, he set this beautiful table:

By the time Mr. valleywriter's parents showed up, we had the brie en croute ready to roll. The turkey came out when we expected it to. And we managed to get everything on the table nice and hot. The turkey was very moist - thank goodness! Dry turkey was my biggest fear, but I guess it was unfounded.

Here's what I learned from my first Thanksgiving dinner:
1. Pay attention to what kind of turkey you're buying if you want to brine it. Don't get a "natural basting" one.
2. Roasting breast-side down is great for keeping the breast meat moist, but if you want the skin to stay intact, be sure to oil the bird and/or the roaster rack.
3. Puff pastry doesn't brown as well when you have other things in the oven. (Note to self: Next year, if you do brie en croute while the turkey's still cooking, bump the oven up to 400 degrees first.)
4. 5 pounds of potatoes is WAY TOO MUCH for 4 people - even if you like leftovers.
5. Do whatever you can ahead of time. It makes the day-of so much more relaxing.

So - bet you're wondering why there are no pictures of my glorious Thanksgiving feast. Honestly, this Thanksgiving wasn't as much about the food for me. I was enjoying a relaxing afternoon, good company and good conversation so much, I didn't want to interrupt it with the camera. I wanted to focus on my family and on giving thanks for all of the amazing blessings in my life.

I was blessed this year to marry the man of my dreams in the wedding of my dreams - an intimate, barefoot, sunset wedding on the beach. I was blessed to buy my first home in the amazing community that is the Pioneer Valley. I am continually blessed to be surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family. I was blessed to know an amazing woman, the original owner of the dishes seen above, who taught me what true grace is and showed me how to persevere through whatever life gives you, all while she was battling terminal cancer. I am blessed not to have to worry where my next meal will come from or how I'm going to pay the bills. The list goes on, but you get the idea. I give thanks every day for what I have, but today in particular I give great thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Prepping for Thanksgiving

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year for the first time. Fortunately it's a small gathering - just my husband's parents and us. But I have to admit, I'm still a little nervous. Sure, I've helped out with Thanksgiving dinners in the past, but my experience is limited pretty much to the last minute dash to make the gravy, finish the potatoes and other side dishes and carve the turkey, all the while trying to get it onto the table while it's still hot. This flurry of anxious activity is the one thing I'm hoping to minimize.

So, I'm trying to make as much as I can ahead of time. Yesterday I baked a couple of loaves of bread that I'll use for the stuffing (or dressing, since I won't be putting it in the bird). Today I made my cranberry sauce so it has time to set and my pie crust so it has time to chill in preparation for making pumpkin pie tomorrow. Here are my recipes:

Citrus Cranberry Sauce

Ingredients:
1 12-ounce bag cranberries
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Cointreau

Directions:
Combine sugar, orange juice and Cointreau in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer and add cranberries. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't boil over. Mash berries until sauce reaches desired consistency. Chill at least 4 hours before serving. (You can make this up to a week ahead.)


Flaky Pie Crust
(Makes 2 crusts)

Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups flour
2 sticks butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
up to 1/2 cup cold water

Directions:
Put butter in freezer for 15 minutes to thoroughly chill.
In a food processor, combine flour, chilled butter cubes, salt and sugar. Pulse 10-15 times until mixture is crumbly.
Add water 1 Tbsp. at a time, pulsing until the dough begins to clump.
Test the dough by pinching it - when it holds together, it's done.
Pour the crumbly dough out into a big bowl or onto a cutting board. Shape into 2 evenly sized discs. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and up to a day ahead (or freeze for up to 2 months).

When you're ready to make your pie, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Lightly flour your rolling surface and sprinkle flour on top of the disc of dough. Roll out until the dough is about 1/8" thick and fully covers your pie plate.


So, I know I make it seem like I am the master of planning and all things are going according to plan. But in truth, I do have a "Thanksgiving oops" confession to make. Part of my master plan was to roast a succulent, beautifully brined turkey. I took my turkey out of the freezer on Friday night so it would be defrosted in time to put it in the brine tomorrow.

Everything was going swimmingly until I checked the turkey this morning to see how it was coming along and noticed a little logo on the top of the package that said "naturally basting." Not exactly sure of what that meant, I continued reading and noticed fine print at the bottom of the package that the turkey contained up to 8% added moisture. In other words, it was effectively pre-brined.

My mad dash search of the Internet determined that brining any further could make it too salty or turn the meat to mush. I half considered rushing out to the store to get a fresh, non-basting turkey, but decided that a) I really didn't need 2 turkeys and b) I really don't want to brave the grocery store - especially the turkey section - 2 days before Thanksgiving.

Hopefully this will be my biggest blunder in preparing the Thanksgiving feast. But I have a feeling there might be more misadventures in the next few days... stay tuned!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pumpkin Spice Bread

Here's a wonderful recipe to get you in the Thanksgiving spirit. It's almost like pumpkin pie in bread form. The smell of spices will fill your kitchen as its baking (or at least it did mine this afternoon). If we manage not to gobble it all up by then, I think I'll use it for French toast on Thanksgiving morning, too.

Pumpkin Spice Bread



Ingredients
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/3 cup water
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine sugar, oil and eggs in a mixing bowl. Beat until creamy and lemon-colored. Add water and beat. Mix ginger with pumpkin puree and add to bowl with sugar mixture. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Add to wet ingredients and mix just until blended. (The batter will be thinner than most quick breads - more like a cake batter.)

Pour batter into greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 10 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill

It has been unseasonably (and bitterly) cold for the last week or so here in the Pioneer Valley. The high yesterday might have been 30 degrees - in the sun. And with the windchill, it feels even colder - more like 20. So we're looking for any and all ways to stay warm. Today that amounted to a drive in Mr. valleywriter's car that has heated seats (or "butt warmers" as I like to call them) out to Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill in Southampton for some local apple cider and freshly made cider doughnuts.

Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill is located on East Street in Southampton. Bashista's grows its own apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries. A large white barn houses the farm stand, which sells not only the fruits from the orchards, but also seasonal vegetables, jellies, pies, salad dressings, honey and more.









In the fall, Bahsista's also makes and sells its own apple cider and cider doughnuts. If you don't know what a cider doughnut is, I seriously feel for you. Come September, they are a New England institution. These wonderful little brown circles of goodness are brown and crispy on the outside and soft and cakey on the inside. They're made with apple cider (hence the name), so they have a slight hint of apple flavor and are perfect for munching on while sipping a cup of warm milled cider.

I think Homer Simpson's "Mmmm... doughnuts...." saying may have come from the experience of smelling fresh cider doughnuts hot out of the pan. At least, that's how I felt the minute I stepped into Bashista's. We followed our noses to the back counter, where we found an array of freshly made doughnuts. Bashista's has the two main types of cider doughnuts - plain and sugar coated - as well as some new-to-us varieties like "apple crisp" and "pumpkin." We picked out a small pack of the traditional sugar and a small pack of pumpkin, along with a quart of apple cider, and headed back home to enjoy.

We mulled the cider by letting it simmer in a saucepan with a packet of mulling spices for about 20 minutes. We sat down and dug in (after Mr. valleywriter set up this beautiful shot for you):
The doughnuts tasted just as wonderful as they had smelled in the shop. The pumpkin variety had just the slight hint of pumpkin, certainly not overpowering. They were a nice change of pace, but I have to admit the traditional sugar doughnuts still have a special place in my heart and always will.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bachelorette Vegetarian Lasagna

Mr. valleywriter is away on business for a few days, so I'm living the single life again. Back in my bachelorette days, dinner was usually an after thought - I'd pull together something from the odds and ends in my cabinets & fridge and call it dinner (saltines and a can of green beans - why not?!). These days, I normally plan a full 7 dinners once a week and make sure they're well rounded with veggies, starch & protein. But Mr. valleywriter left town on grocery shopping night and going to the store seemed like a lot of effort for 1 person, so I figured I'd play the single gal and scrounge the depths of my fridge for something edible.

Turns out my fridge is stocked a lot better than it was back in my bachelorette days. I found a green pepper, a red pepper, carrots, an open container of ricotta cheese and some parmesan & mozzarella cheese. I opened up the cabinet and lo-and-behold, there sat 1/2 a box of lasagna noodles and a jar of spaghetti sauce. Can you say vegetarian lasagna?! Sweet!

I didn't actually measure anything, so these are guesstimates, but here's what I'd say I used:
1/2 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 cup shredded mozzarella
9 lasagna noodles
1 jar pasta sauce
1 medium red pepper, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
3/4 cup carrots, chopped

I combined the sauce & veggies in a saucepan and let them simmer while the water was boiling for the lasagna noodles. I mixed together the ricotta, parmesan and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella and added a tablespoon of milk to help it stick together (no eggs!). I cooked the lasagna noodles for 12 minutes while the oven was preheating to 350 degrees.

After the noodles were cooked & drained, I put 3 of them in the bottom of a small casserole dish, spread 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles and topped that with 1/3 of the sauce. I repeated another layer of noodles, ricotta & sauce, topped with a final layer of just noodles & sauce. Then I sprinkled on the remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella.

I baked it for 40 minutes until the cheese was nice and bubbly.

It came out delicious! And it made enough to feed me for the rest of the time Mr. valleywriter is away. I wish cooking were this easy all the time!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanks for making me an official foodie, FoodBuzz!

I recently joined FoodBuzz, which is an online community of food lovers sharing recipes, restaurant reviews, cooking tips, etc. Shortly after I joined, I was asked if I wanted to become a featured publisher, since I post so much about food on my blog. I figured why not - if nothing else, it could help boost traffic to my site. (Knowing someone out there is reading is good motivation to continue, even on days where you just feel like sacking out on the couch after work - ah hem, I digress...)

So I signed up, put the pretty FoodBuzz banner on my page and went on my merry way not giving my featured publisher status much more thought. But today I received a lovely surprise in the mail - a package from FoodBuzz. I opened it up and found this box inside:


Moo minicards, huh? Sounds interesting.... I opened up the box and what did I find inside? The cutest little mini business cards with my name & blog address on one side and neat pictures of food on the other.


That's right - I have foodie business cards! Too cool! I don't know how to explain it, but something about people with business cards impresses me. I don't even have a business card for my "real job," which is always embarrassing to say when someone asks me for one. Guess now I'll just give them one of these! Thanks FoodBuzz!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baking makes winter a little more bearable (but only a little)

Yes, I know we have over a month to go before the official start of winter, but I saw snowflakes today, which means winter in my book. Some celebrate the coming of the snow. I am not one of those people. Sure, the first snowfall is pretty, but when you know there's 4 more months of it to come, it starts looking a little less pretty real quick!

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful recipes to keep me through the winter. Not only does baking help me relieve stress, the warm of the oven helps warm up the house and the warmth of fresh baked goods helps warm up my belly - a triple win situation!

Tonight's recipe - pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. These are soft, bready cookies - great for eating with a cup of warm cocoa or tea. I have even been known to eat them for breakfast (they have pumpkin; that makes them healthy, right?!). Enjoy!




Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies


Ingredients
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, softenened
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt.

In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugars. Add pumpkin, egg and vanilla and beat until creamy.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips.

Drop dough onto greased cookie sheets, using about 1 1/2 tablespoons of dough per cookie.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes until cookies are fully set in the center.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Preparing for the Holidays - Testing out toffee

Thanksgiving is less than 2 weeks away and it's a little later than usual this year, which means the holidays will be here before we know it. This year I'm hoping to cut back on my holiday shopping a little, but my alternative plans need their own prep work.

Growing up, my family always did a huge baking weekend before the holidays. We'd make hundreds of dozens of cookies, fudge and peanut butter balls. And then we'd give plates away to nearly everyone we knew - my parents' coworkers, neighbors, the postman - even the newspaper delivery person. It was a great tradition in that it got the whole family into the kitchen, working together, talking, laughing and really getting into the holiday spirit. Obviously I have fond memories of this tradition, so this year, I've decided to do my own "cookie blitz" and give away goodie bags to neighbors, party hostesses, etc. instead of the standard (and tired) bottle of wine or other trinket.

One of the things I wanted to try was making my own toffee. I found a good basic recipe online at Allrecipes.com, but then realized it called for a candy thermometer and chocolate chips, neither of which I had on hand or wanted to go out for.

At this point I was craving toffee, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and make a small batch adapted to suit the ingredients I had on hand and my lack of a candy thermometer. It could have been a total disaster and waste of ingredients, but I was actually so happy with how it turned out that I think this is the recipe I'm going to stick with for the holidays. Yay for throwing caution to the wind for once!
Here's how I did it:

Ingredients
1/2 cup butter (NOT margarine)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/8 tsp. salt

3/4 cup chopped pieces of Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate
10 almonds, chopped
Directions

Line an 8x8 pan with parchment paper.

Combine butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until butter is completely melted. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Stir about every 30 seconds or so until the mixture is a dark caramel color (like maple syrup). Drop a small amount of the mixture into a glass of cold water. If it hardens instantly and is crunchy to the bite - the toffee is ready. (If you have a candy thermometer, the original recipe this is adapted from says to cook it until it's 285 degrees.)

Once the toffee is ready, pour it into the parchment-lined 8x8 pan. Sprinkle chopped up dark chocolate over the top and let sit 2 minutes to soften. Gently spread the melting chocolate over the toffee with a silicone spatula. (It will continue to melt as you spread it - so keep spreading - you'll get there!)

Here's where it gets a little odd. I like nuts & sweets together; Mr. valleywriter does not. So I took the chopped almonds and sprinkled them over just half of the pan of toffee and left the other half nut-free for the hubby. If you want to make a full batch of nut-topped toffee, double the amount of almonds.

Refrigerate toffee until fully cooled. Peel off parchment paper from the bottom and break toffee into pieces to serve.

Here's how my 1/2 nut (in the front), 1/2 nut-free (in the back) batch turned out:


Both were good, so I'll probably do a batch of each during the cookie blitz. Now I just have to figure out what else to make. Help me get some ideas by telling me what your favorite kind of Christmas cookie is. (And thanks in advance if you do!)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Judie's Restaurant - An Amherst Classic

If you live in the Pioneer Valley, you've probably heard of Judie's. It's an incredibly popular little restaurant in the heart of downtown Amherst serving warm, comforting, delicious and often innovative dishes. Judie's is especially well known for the HUGE popovers, as well as the delicious freshly made poppy seed dressing that accompanies most salads.

The decor at Judie's is part of what appeals to me about the restaurant. The walls are covered with beautiful art from a local artist, Donna Estabrooks.


Estabrooks' art is bright, colorful and inspiring and, in my opinion, brings a special warmth to Judie's.

Also somewhat unique to Judie's is that you'll often see Judie herself serving customers at the bar, checking tables or even offering suggestions to customers who seem stuck on making a choice from the menu.

In the last couple of years, Judie's has seen some big changes. They took over the space that was next door to them and expanded, adding a new seating area with a fireplace and beautiful handpainted tables, as well as an ample skylit bar.



The menu, however, has stayed pretty much the same, though there are always new specials to choose from. Today, Mr. valleywriter and I were both in the mood for popovers, so we each ordered one of the popover meals. Mr. valleywriter had the gumbo popover with chicken, chorizo and shrimp (sorry - no picture!) and I had the basil pesto chicken popover with spinach, mushrooms, zuchinni, peas and pasta shells in a pesto romano sauce:

As you can see, when I said the popovers were huge - I meant it! They're served warm with a side of apple butter and are always deliciously crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. This was the first time I'd had the basil pesto chicken popover and, as with all of my Judie's experiences, it did not disappoint. The pesto romano sauce was surprising light and refreshing. The zucchini, peas and mushrooms were all perfectly tender-crisp and the pasta was just right - nicely firm to the bite.

Mr. valleywriter's gumbo was also very good. It was well spiced, not too hot, just a little kick to let you know the heat is there. The chicken, chorizo and shrimp were all cooked just right - not at all rubbery or tough like some gumbos can get when they sit too long in the kitchen.

With the giant popovers and generous bowls of gumbo and basil chicken pesto, Mr. valleywriter and I were far too full to indulge in dessert today. But in good conscience, I can't *not* tell you about the incredible bananas foster we usually enjoy at Judie's. It's definitely a dessert for sharing. You get a big glass sundae dish filled with creamy, rich vanilla ice cream, sliced bananas and gooey foster sauce (butter, brown sugar, rum and spices), all topped with whipped cream and served with straws to make sure you get every last drop of gooey goodness from the bottom of the dish. To die for!

Every time we go to Judie's, we say we need to buy a popover pan so we can learn to make our own at home (Judie sells a cookbook with many of her recipes in it - including the popover recipe). But several years later, we still don't have a popover pan... I think maybe that's our subconsciences' way of ensuring we still have an excuse to visit Judie's and indulge :-)

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Way to Find Restaurants in the Pioneer Valley

I heard an ad for a Web site on the radio this morning that claimed to be a one-stop site for finding restaurants in the Pioneer Valley, so I decided to check it out. It sounded like the ad kept saying the URL was "Whatchya in the mood for," but it turns out there are lots of different ways people spell "whatchya," so it took a little hunting...

Eventually I found it at Watchainthemoodfor.com. (Personally, I think it's wrong to drop the "y" from "ya," but that's just one gal's opinion!) True to the advertising, the site is local to the Pioneer Valley and surrounding areas, including Enfield, CT and the Berkshires.

It has a great search function where you can put type in a town that you're looking for restaurant in or even a zip code and radius you're willing to travel. What I liked the most is that you can narrow your results by options like meal type (breakfast, dinner, etc.), cuisine (Chinese, fine dining, bar food, take out, etc.) and entertainment options (sports bar, DJ, dancing, etc.). When you get your list of search results, the restaurant name, address, phone number, a link to Google maps and a link the restaurant's Web site (if they have one).

The one thing that would make this site better is a place for restaurant reviews. Then it truly would be one-stop-shopping for Valley restaurants. But instead, you'll just have to come back to my blog to see if I've been there and reviewed it :-)

Looking for a review now? Check out:
Bueno Y Sano in Northampton
The Lone Wolf in Amherst
Ralphine's Cafe & Deli, The Silver Spoon or Nini's in Easthampton
Frigo's or Onyx Fusion in Springfield

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fantastic Fridge Finds = Bread Pudding!

I have a confession to make. I'm frugal (Mr. valleywriter calls it "cheap"). I like saving money and getting things on sale. This often leads to me buying more food than we can use in a week or in much larger packages than 2 people can finish - so a lot goes into the freezer or has to be used creatively. With Thanksgiving on the way, I knew I needed to clear some room out of both the fridge and the freezer, so I went hunting for treasures tonight.

I found some leftover hot dog and hamburger rolls, some craisins, a half-eaten pint of vanilla ice cream in danger of getting frost bite if it hung around much longer and some vanilla soy milk that was on day 9 of it's 10-day shelf life. What can you do with frozen rolls, craisins, ice cream & soy milk? Well, add a few other things in and you can make a fantastic bread pudding!



Cranberry Chocolate Bread Pudding

Ingredients:
1/4 cup craisins
3 Tbsp. brandy
1 1/2 c. light vanilla soy milk
1/4 c. sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. white bread, cubed (this is what 2 hot dog rolls and 1 hamburger roll works out to)
2 1/2 oz. dark chocolate, chopped

Directions:
In a small bowl, combine craisins and brandy and set aside to let craisins plump.

In a saucepan, combine soy milk and sugar. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together egg and egg yolk until creamy. Slowly stir in hot soy milk & sugar mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk in vanilla extract. Add bread cubes and toss together. Let sit for 15 minutes.

While that's sitting, start preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Grease 4 6-ounce custard cups and place them in a 9x13 baking dish. Start boiling a kettle of water.

Once the 15 minutes are up, mix the craisins & brandy into the bread mixture. Pour into custard cups. Sprinkle each cup with 1/4 of the chopped up chocolate and use a knife to carefully push some of the chocolate into the custard.

Put the baking dish (with the custard cups) in the oven. Fill the baking dish with boiling water until water comes about 1/2 way up the sides of the custard cups.

Bake for 35 minutes. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.



This recipe was delicious and even my husband didn't suspect there was soy milk in it! (He has an aversion to such things.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Homemade Applesauce

It's funny how we often think things we don't know how to do must somehow be difficult. That's what I thought about making applesauce. My mother never made it and I don't know anyone else who did, so I assumed it must be some complex, all-day affair. But I had the day off today (thank you Veterans) and I had some apples in "cold storage" (aka the basement) that needed to be used up, so I decided to give it a try.


I started by reading some recipes. And what I discovered almost instantly was that, if you're not canning applesauce, it's one of the easiest things in the world to make! Since it seemed so easy, I decided to forgo an official recipe and give it a whirl on my own. The results are yummy - so I'm sharing.


Homemade Unsweetened Applesauce
Makes about 2 cups


Ingredients:
5 small apples (I used 3 Cortlands and 2 McIntosh)
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract


Directions:

Peel and core apples. Chop roughly (no need to get fancy here). Put in saucepan. Pour water over apples. Stir in cinnamon and vanilla.


Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook 10-15 minutes until apples turn to mush when mixed.


If you like your applesauce chunky, that's all there is to it. If you prefer a smoother applesauce, you can puree it in a blender or food processor to the desired consistency.


So much for my all-day recipe... but I guess that means I have time to go make something else now!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pumpkin Ravioli with Chicken & Walnuts in a Sage Cream Sauce

Growing up, we often had big "special" dinners on Sunday nights. You know, the kind that take hours to prepare, make the house smell incredible all afternoon and leave you belly up on the couch afterward because you're so stuffed?

Ahhh... those were the days. They don't happen too often anymore, but I had a rare Sunday afternoon at home today and while I didn't make a "big" dinner, I did decide to put some quality time in the kitchen and make one hell of a meal, if I do say so myself. (Mr. valleywriter said so, too!) I decided it was time to break out the pasta maker and make my first ever batch of ravioli. I couldn't resist using some fresh, local ingredients, so Pioneer Valley pumpkin and maple syrup get to come out an play again in this recipe :-)

Everything here is from scratch, so this recipe is time consuming, but the results are absolutely worth it. This recipe makes enough for 4-6 servings.

Pumpkin Ravioli with Chicken & Walnuts in a Sage Cream Sauce
Ingredients
Pasta dough:
3 large eggs
2 1/2 cups flour

Filling:
1 cup pumpkin puree (told you we'd be using this soon!)
1/2 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground ginger

Chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 leaves fresh sage, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt & pepper

Sauce:
2 Tbsp. butter
2 cups fat-free half and half
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup walnuts
8 fresh sage leaves
1 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. cornstarch, mixed with just enough water to dissolve
salt & pepper to taste

Yes, I know it's a lot - but hang in there - it's worth it!

Directions:
First make your pasta dough by putting the flour into a mixing bowl and creating a pit in the middle for the eggs. Start stirring the eggs with a fork, slowing pulling in flour from the sides of the bowl until the flour and eggs are fully mixed. If the dough is crumbly, add a little bit of water at a time, just until the dough sticks together. If it's too dry, add a little flour until it's manageable.


Dump the egg/flour mixture out onto a floured board. Knead dough until the color and consistency are uniform.
Cover with a wet towel and let sit for 20-25 minutes.

While you're waiting for the dough to finish resting, you can start your chicken. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour olive oil into a pie plate and turn chicken in the plate to coat. Sprinkle both sides with a few shakes of salt, a few grinds of pepper, minced garlic and minced sage. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until center is no longer pink. (Once this is done, you can just cover with foil and set aside until you're ready to make the sauce.)

After you put the chicken into the oven, move onto your filling. In a food processor or blender, combine filling ingredients and puree until smooth. Put filling in the fridge until you're ready for it.

OK - back to the dough. Break off about 1/4 of the ball of dough (keep the rest covered with the towel until you're ready to use it) and run it through your pasta maker on the highest setting (for the thickest dough). Flour one side, fold in half and run it through again. Repeat 1-2 more times until dough has a uniform shape and consistency.

Dial the pasta maker down to the next lowest setting and run the dough through again. Fold in half, dial down to the next lowest setting and run through. Repeat until you reach the lowest setting on the pasta maker and have a nice long, thin sheet of pasta. Set aside on a floured pan.

Repeat with remaining dough until you have 4 long, thin sheets of pasta. (Maybe it's just my lack of coordination, but cranking out pasta is a 2 person job in my household - so thanks for the help Mr. valleywriter!!!)
Go back to the first sheet of dough you made. Lay it out on a well floured piece of parchment paper. Cut it in half the long way, creating 2 narrower, long strips of pasta. Then cut into squares.

Get your filling out of the fridge and drop about 1 Tbsp. of filling into the center of the top row of squares.


Using a pastry brush (or your fingertips), wet the sides of the pasta with a small amount of water. Take the bottom square of pasta and place it on top of the filling, gently pressing around the mound of filling to get out any air bubbles. Crimp the edges with a fork to seal the 2 pieces together. Repeat until all raviolis are sealed - then repeat the entire process with the remaining sheets of pasta (using the sheet that's been resting the longest first each time). Set the ravioli aside while you put the water on to boil and start the sauce.

For the sauce - start by cutting up the cooked chicken into strips and set aside. In a saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in half and half, Parmesan cheese and maple syrup and bring to a gentle simmer. Add chicken, walnuts and sage and let simmer over medium-low heat.

By this time, your water should be boiling. Drop the raviolis in to cook. When they float - they're done (about 4 minutes). Gently take the raviolis out with a spatula and set aside.

To finish the sauce, stir in the cornstarch and water mixture to thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon over ravioli and enjoy!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bueno Y Sano - Good, Healthy & Wallet Friendly!

Every now and then, you don't feel like cooking but don't want to spend a small fortune on going out to dinner, either. Well, a small fortune might be a bit of an exaggeration, but many of the good restaurants in the valley aren't exactly cheap. We usually spend a minimum of $50 for the 2 of us when we go out to dinner - usually more.

Given this current economic climate, it pays to save wherever you can, so we decided to try something new for dinner. Enter Bueno Y Sano on Main Street in Northampton. Bueno Y Sano means "Good and Healthy" in Spanish, and this little burrito place offers food that is just that.

Decorated in bright colors, creative murals and even a disco ball above the doorway, you know Bueno Y Sano is different the minute you enter the door. You might think it caters just to the college students at nearby Smith, UMASS, etc., but the patronage is actually quite diverse - ranging from young families with small children to twenty- and thirty-somethings to older couples. And of course, there are groups of college students out for tasty, cheap eats, too.

The menu is... you guessed it... Mexican cuisine - burritos, quesadillas, tacos, etc. But these aren't your typical meat & beans burritos & tacos. Sure, you can get that - but you can also get one with grilled red peppers, zucchini, shrimp, catfish, chickpeas & red curry or even seitan (also known as "wheat meat").

Mr. valleywriter enjoyed the steak burrito meal, which comes with a side of rice and beans and a jalapeno stuffed with cream cheese and mushrooms. I went with just the BBQ chicken burrito. Both burritos were generously sized, filled with rice, beans, our chosen meat, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, cilantro and cheese all wrapped in a soft wheat tortilla.
Our burritos were incredibly fresh and tasty, especially with the hot dipping sauce. We also had a good time hanging out in the vibrant space, watching the world and the diverse population that is Northampton go by. Best of all, even with 2 sodas, our entire dinner came to only $18. Can't beat that! I'm thinking maybe they should changed their name to Bueno Y Sano Y Frugal (sorry Babelfish doesn't give a Spanish translation for frugal). We'll definitely be back!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - The Pumpkin Episode

With this being my first fall in my first-ever home, I felt an intense need to decorate our porch in some way. Rather than going all-out for Halloween, I decided to do a more understated fall look, central to which were local pumpkins. So a couple of weeks ago, we headed out to Fletcher Farm in Southampton to pick out the perfect orange orbs.







I thought we'd get 2 - one for each side of the porch... but we ended up going a little pumpkin wild - deciding to do a tiered display with 6 pumpkins of varying sizes:

It just happened to work out that the perfect pumpkins for the front were small sugar pumpkins, which are also perfect for baking. With Halloween come and gone and the frosts threatening the take the pumpkins out for good anyway, I rescued the sugar pumpkins from the front steps for my latest little "recycling" efforts.

That's right - reusing porch decorations for baking! Since I use a lot of fresh pumpkin puree in my recipes, I thought I'd take this recycling opportunity to explain how to make it. It's simple once you know how.

First step - wash your pumpkins off well. Then cut them in half and scoop out the seeds and the stringy guts. Place them face down on a baking sheet, like this:

Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes or until the flesh is soft. Allow the pumpkin to cool until you can easily handle it. Scoop the flesh out into your food processor bowl or blender. Puree until smooth (it should look like baby food).

That's it! I got just over 6 cups of pumpkin puree from my 2 little pumpkins, so now I have a nice supply in the freezer for the rest of the season. Stay tuned for more yummy pumpkin recipes!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time to Celebrate!

Guess I picked the right saying in my last post - "third time's the charm" as far as voting goes! Not only did my choice for President prevail, so did my choices for state officials and proposals. I think I finally found my political "home" here in Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley. Let's just say they're a little more conservative where I'm from back up north...
So how did I celebrate this incredible day? With chocolate, of course!

When we were in Newport this weekend, we stumbled upon a little chocolate shop tucked away on Bowen's Wharf. The awing read "Destination: Chocolate" - in other words, my version of heaven. How could I resist?
Walking into the store, I was at first surprised to see mostly packaged chocolates. They were high quality brands, but I guess I thought there would be rows and rows of handmade chocolates with a store name like "Destination: Chocolate." As I made my way to the back of the store, I did find the handmade chocolates - and they were worth the wait. I was immediately struck by the beauty of these chocolates. So beautiful, you almost feel bad about eating them (almost).
There were 14 different handmade chocolates to choose from, including caramel, coconut, strawberry, raspberry, Oreo and peanut butter and jelly, to name a few. These chocolates were dear (about $2.50 each), but to beautiful to resist, so we decided to get a "sampler" box of 4. After the proprietor of the shop described each of the chocolates to us in detail, we chose a Venezuelan, an espresso, a raspberry and a caramel.




First up - the Venezuelan.



This was compared by the shop proprietor to a vintage bottle of wine. The chocolate is a pure Venezuelan dark chocolate variety (not a blend) and it's flecked with edible gold. Biting into the Venezuelan, my first thought was how incredibly smooth it was. While it is a dark chocolate, it was very delicate on the tongue - not bitter at all, in my opinion.



Next on the list - the caramel.
Again this little beauty was incredibly smooth. The caramel melted on the tongue, with no stickiness or chewiness. It was almost like a liquid caramel, except the center wasn't liquid. This is definitely the best caramel chocolate I have ever had.

Third on the tasting menu was the espresso.

This milk chocolate truffle had a smoky, smooth espresso filling. It tasted almost exactly like a chocolate covered coffee bean - except without the crunchy grit of the bean (my least favorite part!).

And last but not least - la piece de la resistance - the raspberry.


The design of this chocolate was the most amazing, in my opinion. The fiery red and snow white swirls were incredible against the dark chocolate background. And the taste? Just as wonderful as the appearance. The raspberry infused filling was more tart than sweet - the perfect complement to the smooth, rich chocolate outside. It occurs to me that this is almost the perfect chocolate for celebrating the election with - if only we could add a little blue into the mix - it'd be a true All-American truffle.

Needless to say, Destination: Chocolate will definitely be on my list of repeat destinations the next time we visit Newport. Hopefully that will be well before the next election celebration!

Monday, November 3, 2008

All-American Apple Cake

I know what you're thinking. The saying is usually "all-American apple pie" - not all-American apple cake. But apple pie is more befitting of the 4th of July in my mind, so I decided to celebrate this election eve with a twist on that old favorite.


Apple cake is one my fall favorites - perfect for dessert or snacking - or even a quick breakfast. This recipe makes a very moist, delicious cake that's almost quick bread-like. It holds up well even after a couple of days on the counter. And believe it or not - it's pretty healthy as far as cakes go. My nutritional calculations estimate each piece (1/12 of a Bundt cake) has about 220 calories, 6 grams of total fat (less than 1 gram saturated) and 1.5 grams of fiber.


All-American Apple Cake


Ingredients:

2 eggs

1/4 cup oil

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups apples, peeled & chopped



Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a Bundt pan.

Beat eggs, oil, applesauce and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt. Mix in egg mixture by hand until well combined. Mixture will be thick like muffin batter.

Fold in apples until well distributed. Pour into greased pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.













At the risk of being political - I have just one more thought to share. It occurred to me tonight on the way home that this will only the 3rd ever Presidential election I've been eligible to vote in. And then it occurred to me that in the last 2, my votes were not so successful.... This left me betwixt and between 2 old sayings my mother was fond of - "Third time's the charm" and "Bad things come in threes." My mood perhaps brightened by a piece of yummy cake, I've decided to predict "Third time's the charm" will be the saying that wins out tomorrow. We shall see!

Update: Third time is the charm! We'll have to give thanks for this cake and it's lucky charm properties at Thanksgiving. Check out this recipe and other alternative T-day recipes at the Vegetarian Thanksgiving Recipe Carnival, hosted by Fun & Food Cafe

Sunday, November 2, 2008

An Adventure Away from the Valley - Newport, RI

Piper, the kitten, thinks that 5:15am is a good time to get up in the morning. And she didn't get the memo that today ended Daylight Savings Time, so she got up at her usual time... which turned out to be 4:15am with the time change. Mr. valleywriter and I tried as we might to get back to sleep - to no avail. So by 7am, we'd showered, eaten breakfast, watched TV and were decidedly bored. So we decided a day trip was in order and picked Newport, Rhode Island as our destination.

One of the wonderful things about living in the Pioneer Valley, or most anywhere in New England, is that you're within driving distance of a wide range of unique towns, cities and attractions. We occasionally take off with no particular plans for Boston, the Berkshires, Hartford, the CT casinos, etc. But Rhode Island had never made it on our list of fun, random day trips... until today.

Mr. valleywriter went to college in RI, so he'd been to Newport before, but I had not. On the way there, we actually stopped at his old stomping grounds, known as Bryant College when Mr. valleywriter was an undergrad, but now known as Bryant University.




After a little trip down memory lane (and a little dreaming about how it might have been had Mr. valleywriter become a professor - as shown above), we headed on down the rest of the state (yeah, RI is pretty small) to the island town of Newport.

Newport's history is long and illustrious. Founded in the 1600s, over the years it has served as a major port for New England, a haven for pirates, a base for the French military, a summer resort for the wealthy and a playground for presidents. (In fact, JFK & Jackie were actually married in Newport at St. Mary's Church.)

Some of the most famous attractions on the island are its incredible mansions. We toured "The Breakers," which was built in the late 1800s by the incredibly wealthy Vanderbilt family. This 70-room estate was their "summer cottage" away from the hustle and bustle of 5th Avenue in New York City. The exterior and the grounds were the only things we were allowed to photograph, but trust me, the inside is just as incredible - if not more so.

After our mansion tour, we headed to the downtown area to check out the shops, and of course, eat! We didn't find a whole lot of choices for lunch, but that wasn't all that surprising given it was a quiet Sunday in the off-season. We settled on The Red Parrot on Thames Street. The many pages of their menu posted outside intrigued us with its mix of traditional seaside New England and Caribbean-influenced offerings.

After perusing the menu more fully inside (I think we counted 18 pages!), we both decided to go with some Caribbean-influenced choices. We started with the jerk chicken quesadillas with goat cheese and mango-pineapple salsa. The jerk chicken was milder than I expected it would be, but it was still pleasantly spiced. The creamy goat cheese and fresh salsa were the perfect match - absolutely incredible!
For the main course, I went with the Fire Cracker Shrimp Salad. It was a generous skewer of honey teriyaki grilled shrimp served over a salad of mixed greens, pineapple, mandarin oranges and crunchy noodles. It came with a side of Thai honey peanut dressing, but the salad had so much flavor, I actually used very little of the dressing.



Mr. valleywriter went with the "Rasta Pasta," which mixed blackened chicken & shrimp with red & green bell peppers and sun dried tomatoes in a Parmesan cream sauce over penne. I personally would've liked more kick to something called "Rasta Pasta," but Mr. valleywriter seemed to enjoy it.



We walked off lunch by checking out a few more shops (including an incredible little chocolate boutique, which will soon be getting its own post) before heading back to the car and back to the Valley. On the way home, we both remarked how Newport reminded us of a unique cross between Boston and Key West. Next time, i think we'll plan a little more in advance and actually spend the night down there so we can see a bit more. Definitely worth the trip!