Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from everyone here in the ValleyWriter household... even the girls:

Hope you have a safe & happy holiday!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Cookie Extravaganza 2009

Last year, I did my 2-day cookie blitz the weekend before Christmas. This year, I made just as many cookies, but was smart enough to spread it out a little over the last week. I'm really happy I chose to do that because this year, I'm not exhausted and sick of cookies at the end of it all like I was last year. The downside is that since I spent every night last week making a batch of cookies or truffles, I didn't have time to post along the way. So now you get one big cookie extravaganza post. (Hmmm... maybe that doesn't sound like such a bad thing after all... I mean, can you ever have too many cookies? I think not!)

For your viewing pleasure, we'll start with a snapshot of the cookie plate I made for dear Mr. ValleyWriter and his office mates:


Starting at the top left, we have my tried-and-true, classic sugar cookies. Some are decorated with simple colored sugar and others have my sugar cookie icing, which dries shiny and beautiful.

To the right of those are white chocolate chip Craisin® cookies, which I think are a nice change of pace from a traditional chocolate chip cookie. The dried cranberries just add a special little touch for me. I don't know what it is, but they really say "Christmas cookie" to me.

Underneath those, we have my take on a Linzer cookie. Linzer cookies normally have ground almonds added to the dough, but we're not big on nuts in sweets around the ValleyWriter household, so I just made them using sugar cookie dough. I cut out a bunch of big stars, then cut smaller stars out of the middle of half of them. I spread a little triple berry jam on the full stars, baked both pieces for 5 minutes. While still hot, I sprinkled the stars with cut-outs with confectioner's sugar, then put them on top of the jam-filled pieces. (The hot jam acts like a glue.) Ta da! Faux Linzer cookies!

Next on the bottom left, we have gingersnaps. These are based on the same recipe I used to make the soft and chewy ginger cookies last year, except I used all butter (no shortening) for these, which creates a crispy cookie that "snaps" when you bite into it. These are nice and spicy, just like a gingersnap should be. But just as a personal preference, next year I think I'll go back to the chewy ones. I feel like I can get a gingersnap anywhere, but the chewy ones are kind of special. (If anyone knows how to make chewy cookies without using shortening - let me know!).

And last, but certainly not least, my new addition to the roundup in the center of the tray - homemade truffles!




These are really simple to make, though they are time consuming. Here's the recipe I came up with after some trial and error:
Dark Chocolate Truffles

Ingredients:
1 lb. dark chocolate (I used 72% dark chocolate from Trader Joe's)
4 oz. cream cheese
4 oz. marshmallow cream
2-3 Tbsp. Grand Marnier, Frangelico or other liqueur (optional)

Toppings: cocoa powder, powdered sugar, crushed pecans, white chocolate, red & green chocolate candy melts

Method:
Cut chocolate into chunks. Add to the top pot of a double boiler. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently until melted. Turn the burner off and add cream cheese to the chocolate mixture. Whisk in briskly. Then stir in marshmallow cream until well mixed and smooth. Stir in liqueur last (if desired).
Spread this mixture (ganache) in a shallow pan (I used a 9 x 13 casserole dish) and refrigerate 1 hour to help harden.
Remove from refrigerator and scoop out about a teaspoon at a time (depending on how big you want your truffles), rolling the ganache into balls between your palms.
At this point, you can either roll the truffles in cocoa, powdered sugar or nuts, or save them for later to cover in chocolate. If you are using the cocoa, sugar or nuts - roll them right away while the ganache is still a little soft from the heat of your hands. This will help the topping stick.

Once rolled, you can pop the truffles back into the fridge for a few days or even a week before you finish decorating/eating them.

For the truffles that I wanted to coat in chocolate, I put them back in the refrigerator for another night and let them sit at room temperature for about 2 hours before I was ready to coat them.
Then I melted the white chocolate in the microwave, per the package instructions.
One by one, I put the truffles on a spoon, dunked it into the bowl of chocolate and a carefully tipped them off the spoon onto waxed paper.
I swirled the spoon up and over the top, which gave the truffles a cool little curly cue on the top.
On the ones that didn't turn out so cute on top, I used the colored candy melts to make designs or squiggles on top. My creative outlet ;-)

Next year, I'll have to change up the cookies some, just for variety. But you can bet the sugar cookies will make a comeback. Because really, have you celebrated the holidays yet if you haven't had a sugar cookie? No. So go eat one!

Monday, December 14, 2009

I made bagels!

As you can tell from the title, I'm pretty proud of myself for this one. That's right - I made homemade bagels - and they turned out pretty darn good!



A little crunchy on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside. And aside from taking a while due to having to let the dough rise a few times, they were surprisingly simple.

I generally followed this Boiled Bagels recipe. I used all the same amounts of things and followed the same order of steps, but instead of using the "let rise" times listed (15 minutes in step 2 and 20 minutes in step 3), I let the dough rise until it was doubled in size. Since it's winter and we have stone (i.e. cold) counter tops, this took about an hour each time. Obviously if you did this in the summer, it might not take as long.

But even with the waiting time, it is sooo worth it! And the bagels store well, too. We stuck them in an airtight container and found they were just as good 4 days later. The only comment Mr. ValleyWriter had was that I should've made fewer bagels so each bagel was bigger ("New York style," according to Mr. ValleyWriter). Personally, I don't like a ginormous bagel, but if you do - considering making 8 bagels instead of the 12 the recipe calls for.

I'm planning on making another batch this weekend with cinnamon and raisin. Can't wait!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cooking with the Queen

Last fall, I spun you, my fine readers, a tale of how I met a beautiful queen and her handsome Italian price. If you missed it, you can check it out here. At the end of our visit last year, we told Jenn (the Leftover Queen) that she and her husband (Roberto) were more than welcome to stay with us the next time they came up to the Valley.

As luck would have it, they took us up on our offer during their last annual fall trip, just a few weeks ago. They also brought their cute little pooch Pepino, who was an absolute joy! (And has me dying for a doggie now!) I gave you a hint about our visitors a few weeks ago when I posted a pic of the little guy:

In addition to enjoy a nice Tapas-style dinner out, as I posted before, we also had a couple of really wonderful dinners in. It was a lot of fun to cook with another foodie and just come up with things on the fly - no recipes need apply.

We started out the first day by picking up my last CSA share. We got a bunch of root vegetables - sweet potatoes, turnips, beets - and we picked some fresh fresh thyme, rosemary and sage. Then we headed home to create. For that first night, I had picked up a duck for us to enjoy. I had never cooked duck - and it turns out Jenn had never cooked a full one either - but we decided to go ahead and wing it. After brainstorming some ideas, we decided to cook the duck like a beer can chicken, believe it or not!

I had Mr. ValleyWriter pick up some local beer on his way home and we enjoyed a little tasting of each so we could decide on which to use for the duck. We ended up going with a raspberry hefenweizen, which had a nice fruity finish we thought would work wonderfully with the duck. So then we set about scoring the skin (to let the fat drain out), buttering and seasoning her (to get the skin crispy), and then standing her up.
(A special shout out to Roberto & Jenn for these great photos!)

We also cut up those fresh veggies and roasted them in some olive oil and the freshly picked herbs. Despite a brief bout of concern brought on by the smoke alarms (due to the high fat content of duck), the results were phenomenal! It roasted away at 425 for about 2 hours and came out a beautiful mahogany color. When it was done, Roberto was game enough to put on my apron (which I won from one of Jenn's great giveaways on The Foodie Blogroll) and cut it up for us!

(Isn't he cute?!)

I thought roasting the duck this way was quite ingenious - and it came out flavorful and moist. We enjoyed a yummy fall meal that night, for sure! Best of all, I'm no longer intimidated by roasting a duck. (Though I have learned that I should open the windows at the start of cooking...)

The next night, Jenn planned a dinner of pork tenderloin, wild rice and carrots for us. All 4 of us helped out with the prep that night. The boys cleaned and cut carrots, I seared the pork (which Jenn had marinated in a delicious apple cider mixture) and Jenn made the wild rice using a risotto method.

We sat down to another amazing meal - made all the more special by great company!

(Ha! You didn't really think you were going to get to see Mr. ValleyWriter's face, now did you? No, no - it's not the series finale yet. Remember, Mr. ValleyWriter is kind of like Mr. Big on Sex in the City. His true identity is a secret. Is he a celebrity? Is he in witness protection? Hmm.... Intriguing, no?)

We had a great time cooking and chatting with Jenn and Roberto and can't wait to do it again soon. It's still amazing to think about how we randomly met on our respective honeymoons, turned out to have so much in common - and now feel like comfortable old friends. All 4 of us (not just the girls!) can just sit and talk about whatever for hours. Mr. ValleyWriter & I just really enjoy their company. Lucky for us, they're moving back to New England in the spring! Hopefully the next "Queen & me" post will be of us cooking in their new house in Vermont. You'll just have to stay tuned!

For now - please head on over to The Leftover Queen to see her account of our visit!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review: Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila

Fresh, new FTC disclaimer!!!! * I received free product samples of Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila in exchange for this review. *

Now, on to the show:

When I received an email about trying a new Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila, I honestly thought they were talking about a new type of hot sauce infused with tequila. It sounded neat to me, so I said sure, I'd review it.

When I received my samples in the mail a couple of weeks later, I was a little surprised to find actual tequila inside!


Yup - they've come up with a new hot sauce/tequila combo. It took me a few days to process this. You see, I'm not really a tequila person. There's a story behind that (there always is), but we'll just leave it at that. This is a family blog, after all.

So, I decided to put my preconceived notions to the side and go ahead and give the Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila a try. I perused their official recipes and found 2 that caught my eye.

First up - the Bloody Maria (aka a bloody mary). With the spices already inside the tequila, this recipe couldn't be much simpler - tequila, tomato juice, lemon, celery seed. Throw in a stalk of celery and you've got a pretty snazzy looking drink:

When I brought the glass to my mouth, I immediately caught a whiff of the classic Tabasco spice that this tequila is named for. As far as taste, it was spicy, but the tequila definitely came through. And for me, there was just too much tequila. I guess I'm one of those people who wants to drink and not realize I'm drinking. Maybe if I remade this with twice as much tomato juice to tequila it might work for me. I did like the spicy start, just not the tequila finish.

So, I moved on to the next drink - the Tabasco™ Tail. Again, this is a super simple recipe - ginger ale and tequila. Having learned from my first experiment, I used just 1 oz. of tequila to about 4 oz. of ginger ale. Again, I got that great whiff of spice when I first took a sip, felt a little heat on my tongue and then had a nice, clean gingery finish. Perfect! It was like ginger ale with a special kick (not ginger ale loaded up with tequila). I really like this combo as a nice sipping drink.

The bottom line? If you like tequila - give this a try for a spicy change of pace. If you're not big on tequila, you might give it a try for a little extra kick in your drink, but go easy on how much you use. Just a splash will do!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Creative Pizza Combinations

Lately I've been on a homemade pizza kick. But basic pepperoni won't do here in the ValleyWriter household. No; we like toppings that are a little more inspired - like my Valley Cowboy Pizza with fresh corn and BBQ chicken.

Now that corn season is over, however, we have to move on to other options. Within the last couple of weeks, we've come up with:

Chicken, Bacon & Gouda with Honey BBQ Sauce

and

Chicken, Artichoke, Bacon & Gouda with Garlic Cream Sauce

Out of the 2, I like the latter combination best. The garlic cream sauce was just a lovely change of pace from typical red sauces (or BBQ sauce - as we often use). Here's the recipe:

Chicken, Artichoke & Bacon Pizza

Ingredients

Your favorite pizza dough

Garlic cream sauce:
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp. salted butter
2 tsp. flour
1 cup fat-free half-and-half

Toppings:
1 small jar artichoke hearts, drained
4 oz. smoked Gouda cheese, sliced thin
3 slices bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces

Method
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add flour and mix into a paste. Slowly add half-and-half, stirring constantly so flour mixture dissolves. Bring to a boil and simmer until sauce thickens.
In a skillet, cook bacon over low heat until crisp. Add chicken thigh pieces and cook until no longer pink.
Pre-bake crust for 10-12 minutes before adding toppings. When done, spread the garlic cream sauce on the bottom, top with bacon and chicken pieces, artichoke hearts and slices of Gouda cheese. Bake another 10-12 minutes until cheese is melted.


So - I showed you mine - now you show me yours. What are your favorite pizza combinations?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks

In the last few weeks, I've become acutely aware of the fact that I tend to use my blog, Facebook, email, etc. as an outlet for my gripes about life. If you look at my Facebook status updates, you might think I'm a miserable person. I complain that I can't run because of my RA, that our mailbox got smashed in over the weekend, that people are annoying me at work. But in reality, I'm not a miserable person at all! I can be so positive sometimes that I actually annoy other people! :-) But, like everyone, sometimes I get caught up in the momentary and fleeting annoyances of life. However, when you start a thread about those annoyances online, they tend to become less fleeting and momentary - sometimes taking on a life of their own. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and the holidays, I'm trying to cut back on my griping (well, at least online; Mr. ValleyWriter may still get an earful on occasion, but that's just healthy off-gassing).

As I've started to try to let go of those negative thoughts quicker than I can type them, I've come to making lists in my head of all the things I'm thankful for. Turns out - that list is pretty darn long! And I find that the more I make these lists, the less annoyed I get about the little things in life. Long line at the store? Oh well, at least I have the money to be shopping. Construction on the way to work? Hey, at least I have a job to go to.

So here's my (shortened) list of things I'm thankful for this year. I'm thankful that I have an amazing, supportive, loving husband who's also my best friend. I'm thankful for a close family that I know I can always rely on. I'm thankful to have a good job and a roof over my head. I'm thankful to have good health insurance. I'm thankful to have legs that carry me out of bed and about my day, even if my gait is sometimes imperfect. I'm thankful to always go to bed well fed, warm and secure. I am thankful for all those who serve to protect us every day. I'm thankful for all of the warm relationships I have in my life and for the happy spirit that courses through my days.
Your turn. What are you thankful for? (Even if you don't leave a comment, I hope you take the time to consider it. I bet it will make you happier today!)

Happy Thanksgiving.
~ValleyWriter

Monday, November 16, 2009

A new twist on Thanksgiving squash - Cranberry, Apple & Butternut Bake

Last fall, my mom served this amazing butternut squash bake for a family get-together and ever since then, I crave it every time I see butternut. This bake is sweet, yet tart and beautifully colorful. I think it would make a great addition to any Thanksgiving table. The red and green would also make it great for Christmas!



Cranberry, Apple & Butternut Bake

Ingredients:
1 medium butternut squash
1 granny smith apple
1 cup cranberries
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
2 Tbsp. butter, cut into small cubes

Method:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel butternut squash. Cut in half and scoop out seeds. Cut remaining flesh into 1/2" cubes.
Cut apple into 1/2" cubes (do not peel).
In a 7" x 11" dish, combine butternut squash, apple and cranberries.
In a separate bowl, mix together sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon and cloves. Sprinkle evenly over squash mixture. Dot with small pieces of butter.
Bake 50 minutes until squash is tender.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Looking for an inexpensive hostess gift? Try Opera Prima wine!

Since the weather has turned cooler, we've taken to enjoying a glass of wine next to the fire most nights. Of course, if you're on any kind of budget, you can't be buying a few $20 or $30 bottles of wine for everyday use. So, I'm all about trying budget wines. "How low can I go?" is my eternal question. This doesn't always pay off. Let's just say I'm not a big fan of most wines that have cute little animals on the label - no matter how cheap they may be.

My latest source for decent, inexpensive wines is our local co-op. This week, I stumbled on a very nice, inexpensive red wine - Opera Prima Tempranillo ($5.99 for a 750mL bottle).



This Spanish wine is a beautiful dark ruby color. It has a light bouquet with cherry notes and a smooth, full bodied taste with notes of raspberry, cranberry and spices. It's these flavors that make me think this wine would make a great holiday hostess gift. And at $6 a bottle, you can afford to buy plenty! I will definitely be stocking up on this wine.

If you don't want to trust my review (because, honestly, I'm not a wine expert) - consider this - Wine Enthusiast says this is a "Best Buy" and Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar gives it 87 points.

Prefer a different kind of wine? Check out Eat Well, Eat Cheap for a great collection of wines around $10 a bottle. They have reviews for 30 Bargain Wines of the Week (plus some great recipes!).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrating National Pomegranate Month - Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce

November is National Pomegranate Month. November is the perfect time to celebrate pomegranates, since they ripen in the fall and are at their freshest. What's more, I've discovered they pair amazingly well with the other flavors of fall. Cranberry, butternut squash, turkey - pomegranate goes with it all!

You can find pomegranate as whole fruit, fresh juice and as a liqueur. It's this last incarnation that I was lucky enough to get a sample of this past week. PAMA pomegranate liqueur is real pomegranate juice blended with vodka and a touch of tequila.


It's a beautiful cherry color and tastes slightly sweet, but still packs a little tartness at the end. It's tastes smooth and fresh, unlike some other mixers out there that are just too fake for my taste. PAMA would be great in a pomegranate martini (one of my favs!) or one of the many other cocktail recipes they have.

But I decided to forgo the cocktail route and instead incorporate the PAMA liqueur in place of the orange liqueur I usually use in my homemade cranberry sauce. Oh heavens! The pomegranate and cranberry flavors go so well together; they make for a lovely, tart sauce that really wakes up your taste buds. This will definitely be making an appearance on our Thanksgiving table. To boot, the recipe is super simple.



Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce
(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

Ingredients:
3 cups fresh cranberries
4 Tbsp. PAMA liqueur, divided
3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. water

Method
In a medium saucepan, combine cranberries, 2 Tbsp. PAMA liqueur, sugar and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover (to avoid cranberries popping all over the place), reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer 10 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and mash berries with a wooden spoon. Stir in remaining 2 Tbsp. PAMA and let cool. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. (The sauce will thicken and set as it cools.)

Later, I'll post the amazing turkey breast I served this with. The pomegranate cranberry sauce really sends it over the edge!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oh Baby!

Ah ha! Did I get ya? Did you think this would be a pregnancy announcement. Nope! Well, not mine anyway!

Today at work, we had a baby shower for one of my fellow writers. We decided to do a "Baby Desserts" party, where everyone brought in small desserts, like cookies or mini-cheesecakes, etc. I decided to do cupcakes - both mini and regular. I'm just tickled about how the regular cupcakes turned out so I had to share:
See that? It's a little baby face! Too cute! Not my original idea. I adapted it from here (minus the pacifier, obviously). I don't know if anyone else really thinks it's as cute as I do... maybe it's all the sugar from that dessert party.... Anyway - just thought I'd share my amusement for the day!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Ravioli in a Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Anyone who knows me well knows that I do not like cold weather, and as a consequence, I'm not particularly enamored with fall and winter. It's not so much the cooler temps that we get in the fall that bother me. It's the fact that fall is the faithful, unfailing predecessor to winter. There is no other option; no turning back. Once fall is here, winter will soon follow.

But the last couple of years, I've really been trying to be less of a grouch about fall and winter and instead find things to truly enjoy about them. Turns out, finding things to like about fall isn't that hard at all. I like the crispness in the air on fall afternoons, the bright colors on the trees - and of course, all of the wonderful flavors of fall, like fresh apples, cider and pumpkins. Plus, in my mind, fall is a time for comfort foods, like pastas and hearty stews.

So this weekend, after the Halloween hullabaloo had settled down, I set about making a dinner to encompass some of those great things about fall... and ended up with pumpkin & sweet potato ravioli. I will admit that the addition of sweet potato to the ravioli overpowered the pumpkin a bit, but I was still really happy with the results. Even if you don't have the ambition to make your own ravioli, buy some at the store and make the brown butter sauce. It is super simple - and so tasty! It's rich, yet still lets the flavor of the sweet potato come shining through.


Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Ravioli in a Sage Brown Butter Sauce
(Feeds 4 adults generously)

For the ravioli:
3 cups flour
1 cup warm water
2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 c. pumpkin puree
1/2 c. baked sweet potato
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 c. grated Pecorino cheese

1 egg white

For the sauce:
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
8 fresh sage leaves

Method:
Dump 3 c. flour in a large bowl, making a well in the middle. To the center, add 1 c. water and 2 Tbsp. oil. With a fork, begin mixing the water and oil, slowly pulling flour in from the sides as you go. Continue until all of the flour is mixed in (you may need to mix with your hands instead of your fork at a certain point - that's what I do).
Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it's a uniform consistency. Cover with a wet towel and let rest 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make your ravioli filling by combining pumpkin, sweet potato, nutmeg, cinnamon and Pecorino cheese in a blender or food processor and mixing until smooth.

Back to the dough. Break off 1/4 of the dough and begin rolling it out using a pasta maker. Starting at the highest setting, run the dough through, flour it and run it through again. Repeat 1-2 times until dough is smooth. Then start running it through one pass at a time (NO flour in between), lowering the setting with each pass so the dough gets thinner and thinner.

I usually only roll my ravioli dough out to the 2nd or 3rd to last setting ("2" or "3" on my machine) - otherwise it gets too thin. In the end, you should have 4 sheets of pasta, each about 5 inches wide (and really long - not sure how long - just really long!)

Lay the sheets out on a floured surface. Place heaping teaspoons of filling toward the front of each pasta sheet, spacing about 2-3 inches apart as you move lengthwise down the sheet.
Beat the egg white slightly and brush lightly around the edges of the pasta dough and in between each spoonful of filling. Fold the back side of the pasta over the top of the filling, lining the back edge up to the front edge. Press around each mound of filling, pushing any air bubbles out of the center and through the ends of the dough.

Cut the dough between each mound of filling and crimp all 4 edges of the resulting ravioli with a fork to seal.

Boil a large pot of water. Place raviolis in water in batches, cooking for 4-5 minutes at a time.

While cooking the raviolis, bring 1 stick of butter to a boil over medium heat. Cook about 5 minutes until frothy, then add in sage leaves. Continue cooking the butter just until it starts to turn brown. Then remove from heat and cover to keep warm.

Once the raviolis are cooked, drizzle a little bit of brown butter sauce over each serving. I also sprinkled mine with a little extra Pecorino cheese. Absolutely delightful!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sierra Grille - Little Bites, Big Fun!

It's been a busy week in the ValleyWriter household. We've had house guests, Halloween parties and a night out on the town with friends. Even the ValleyKitties have been busy - learning how to use their new cat door, adjusting to having a puppy in the house (one of the house guests) and then, for the littlest one, topping it off with a vet visit this morning. (It was just routine shots, but you'd think we were torturing her based on the sounds she made on the ride over!)

Now the weekend has arrived and while Mr. ValleyWriter sleeps off the effects of last night's Halloween party, I finally have time to update you on some of my adventures. Our house guests were very special foodie guests, so stay tuned for a special post coming soon. I'll leave you in suspense 'til then. My only clue is this picture of an official member of their foodie family:

Anybody recognize him? He's such a cutie!

Anyway - cute puppies and traumatized kitties aside, it was an awesome week. One of several highlights for me was getting to try out Sierra Grille in Northampton. It's been around for several years, but we've just never made it in for some reason. This week, we went with a group of 10 friends - some old, some brand new - and had a really great time.

Part of the reason for that great time was Sierra Grille's group-friendly menu. While they do offer several entrees (where you get to pair your own combinations of protein, sauce and sides) and paninis, the bulk of their menu is made up of appetizers and "small bites" (think tapas). In addition to their regular menu, they also had a bunch of specials to try. What made it so great for the group is that we just ordered a bunch of things and then passed plates around the table sharing.

As for the appetizers, my favorite had to be the smoked habanero chicken wings. We often order chicken wings when we go out, and far too often, they're coated in some strange, orange, chemically sauce. That's not at all the case here. These wings were basted with just the right amount of delightfully spicy sauce - just enough to make your tongue tingle, but not set your whole mouth on fire for the night.

After our little bites, Mr. ValleyWriter and I each ordered a panini as well. I had the duck confit and he had the chicken breast. Sadly, I was a little disappointed with my panini. I didn't think it was possible for duck to be dry - especially duck confit - but this was a bit on the dry side for me. I think it was compounded by the fact that there seemed to be no dressing on the sandwich, even though the description said there was a balsamic reduction. In fact, several people noted that other proteins (pork, beef) also seemed a bit dry and/or lacking in sauce....

However, Mr. ValleyWriter's chicken breast panini was surprisingly delicious! Sometimes I think of chicken as being pretty boring, but they really pumped this up! It had crispy, juicy slices of Granny Smith apple, creamy Gruyere cheese and a yummy slightly-sweet/slightly-spicy mustard. It was absolutely delicious!

The other nice thing about going in a big group and sharing food is that you actually have enough room to make it to dessert. All of their desserts are individual sized - just a few bites to satisfy your sweet tooth. I had the Espresso Mocha pot de creme. Oh. My. Goodness. It was rich and chocolatey, without being coyingly sweet. Mr. ValleyWriter had the creme brulee, which was nice a smooth, but a little too orangey for me (that may be because I'm used to vanilla bean creme brulee).

All in all, it was a great night filled with great food and great conversation. Our server was attentive and did an impressive job keeping up with such a big group. And for all of that food described above, plus a couple of drinks, it was only about $60/couple (which included tip, since Sierra Grille adds it on automatically for groups). That's pretty impressive by Northampton standards.

We will definitely be putting Sierra Grille into the rotation of "date night" restaurants. For now though, I think the whole family is looking forward to a weekend of rest and relaxation. Awesome week -now time to rest up for the next one!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy (Almost) Halloween!

The Halloween festivities are beginning in the ValleyWriter household. We're going to our first Halloween party of the season tomorrow, then another one next Friday and finally Halloween itself next Saturday. I love dressing up (and having an excuse to eat lots of sweets) so YAY!

For tomorrow's party, I wanted to bring something yummy and Halloween-themed, but not too kitschy (i.e. no Dayglo® orange frosting). I saw some brownies in a magazine that had been frosted to look like a spiderweb and loved the look. But I decided to take it one step further by working the web into the brownies themselves. The result are these fudgy cream cheese brownies that look great (if I do say so myself!)


(See - I'm not totally opposed to Dayglo decorations; I'm just not a fan of putting them on my food.)

I made these brownies from scratch (and they are SO worth it!), but if you're pressed for time or ingredients, you could just add the cream cheese part on top of a box mix of brownies.

Spiderweb Cream Cheese Brownies

Ingredients
For the brownies:
1 c. granulated sugar
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. water
3 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 1/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

For the cream cheese web:
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
1 medium egg

Method
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat a 9x13 pan with oil spray or butter.
In a saucepan, heat sugar, butter and water until melted. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips until melted. Whisk in eggs and vanilla until well blended.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt.
Stir flour mixture into chocolate mixture and mix until smooth.
Spread brownie batter into the prepared pan.
In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese, confectioner's sugar and egg until smooth.
Spoon cream cheese mixture into a pastry bag or plastic storage bag.
Cut just the tip of the end of the bag off (just cut one of the bottom edges off if using a storage bag).
Starting at the center of the brownie pan, pipe a small circle of cream cheese in the middle of the brownie batter. Pipe a larger circle around the middle, about 1" away from the center circle. Continue piping circles, one around another, until you reach the edges of the pan.
To make the web shape, take a sharp knife and pull it from the center of the brownie batter to one edge. Move over about 2" and run the knife from the edge back to the center. Repeat going inside to outside, outside to inside, until you make it all the way around the pan. Now fill in any of the lines that look a little thin with more cream cheese batter.
Bake at 325 degrees for 30-35 minutes until center is set.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A little pick-me-up

I've been under the weather for the last few days. Probably the flu, my doctor says. Whatever it was - it wasn't fun. I sat on the couch for 4 days watching bad reality TV (but it always feels so good!) and sleeping. I think my greatest accomplishment on Thursday was putting a load of laundry in the washer. Mind you, it only made it into the washer. Mr. ValleyWriter had to finish the drying and folding. Friday and Saturday, I graduated to unloading the dishwasher. All by myself - woot! woot!

Yeah, so almost needless to say, I wasn't doing any cooking. It helps to be able to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time when you're cooking...

Today, I'm starting to feel a little more like myself. Tired, for sure, but also starting to get sick of crackers and chicken soup. So, tonight I decided to make myself a little pick-me-up treat. My accomplishments of the past few days (or lack thereof) have not included going to the store, so I had to come up with something using what I had on hand. And guess what that was? Yup - APPLES! (Sorry - I swear, we're almost finished with the apples - but this recipe really is a good one to share!)

Mr. ValleyWriter said he wasn't interested in sweets (what?? maybe he's watching his figure to fit into his Halloween costume...), so I was making dessert for 1. And when it comes to dessert for 1, nothing's easier than a baked apple.


It's sweet, yet light, and oh so easy.

Baked Apple for One

Ingredients:
1 medium apple
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. dried cranberries
1 tsp. crushed mixed nuts
1/2 c. water

Method:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut out the center of the apple, including the seeds, leaving the base intact.
Mix brown sugar, cranberries and nuts and spoon mixture into the center of the apple.
Place apple in pie pan and pour water into the bottom of the pan.
Bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes until apple is tender.

When you break open the apple, the juices and center ooze out onto your spoon. Yum!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Homemade Applesauce & Apple Butter

Here it is - the much promised apple post. That's how I spent my Monday afternoon (well, it started on Sunday to tell the truth) - canning applesauce and apple butter.


Last year was my first year making applesauce. I laugh now thinking back at how intimated I was by the thought. Seriously, this has to be one of the easiest recipes out there. I like my applesauce plain - no sugar or spices - but if you want those, you can just add them to taste.

Basic Unsweetened Applesauce
(Makes 5-6 cups)

Ingredients:
8-10 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
3/4 water

Method:
Place apples and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer about 1 hour until apples are mushy.
If you like chunky applesauce, you can stop here. Yeah - seriously. It's that easy!
If you like smooth applesauce, let it cool for a bit and then run it through the blender in batches.

(The instructions for canning your applesauce are below the apple butter recipe.)

Now apple butter is a little more time consuming. Not more complicated, that's for sure. (For those of you who have never had it, apple butter really isn't butter at all. It's just a very thick, creamy, smooth apple and spice mixture that you can serve on toast, muffins, popovers, etc.)
I started mine with fresh apples and used my slow cooker. Using this method, it took me about 16 hours to get the desired result (I did it over 2 days). That worked out for me because I didn't want to can until the second day anyway. But, if you start with applesauce, your cook time will probably be more like 8-10 hours.

Apple Butter
(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

Ingredients
8 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 c. water
1/4 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves

Method
Place chopped apples in the crock of your slow cooker. Pour water, sugar and spices over the top. Toss to mix. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours.
After about 4 hours, stir and break up the apples. Place top only part way on, to allow steam to escape. Continue cooking another 8 hours.
At this point, take the crock out of the slow cooker base and allow mixture to cool slightly. Run through a blender to smooth out the mixture. Refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, place the mixture in the crock and slow cooker, turn heat to high and let cook partially covered for another 4 hours until mixture is dark brown and thick. (You can cook it longer to get it thicker. If it's too thick, add a bit of apple juice.)

To can both your apple butter and applesauce, start by sterilizing your jars. Add hot apple butter and hot applesauce to hot jars (or cold food to cold jars - just don't mix temperatures - or risk glass breakage). Leave about 1/4" of head space at the top of each jar. Place in stock pot with water covering jars by at least 1". Bring water to a boil and boil jars for 15 minutes.
(You can read more about safe canning and get instructions for various altitudes at the
National Center for Home Food Preservation
.)

Then - ta da! You have canned apple butter and applesauce to enjoy all winter!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fall in the Valley

Last night we had our first frost here in the Pioneer Valley, which means fall is officially here to stay. The likelihood of a surprise rash of warm weather is all but a distant dream at this point. Fortunately, with fall comes crisp air, apples and pumpkins, and beautiful colors on the trees.

Today Mr. ValleyWriter and I took a hike up Mt. Tom to check out the fall foliage. We took the access road that they use to service the antennas at the top of the mountain. It's paved, so the footing is fairly even. But it's also basically just a steep, straight shot to the top:
(Not recommended for anyone with knee problems! Trust me, my knees, which have been a lot better lately, felt this one!)

Along the way, we were totally surprised to look just to the side of the road and find this little guy watching us:

Once we got to the top, we knew the steep, hour-long hike had been worth it, when we were treated to beautiful views of the Valley:


We even managed to find our house!
Ever since we moved in last year, we've been trying to catch a glimpse of it from the mountain, knowing we should be able to see it, since we can see the summit from the backyard. Guess we finally got the right angle (I'm such a little kid - I was so excited about this!).
I'm spending the rest of the afternoon holed up in the kitchen with my crockpot, stockpot and a mess of apples. Stay tuned to see what I come up with!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another Great Year of Pioneer Valley Apple Picking

Mr. ValleyWriter and I took advantage of a few sunny, warm hours this past weekend (trust me, they've been too far and few between here in the Pioneer Valley lately) to go on our annual apple picking trip. Last year, we went to Round Hill Orchard in Southampton (check out that experience here). This year, we decided to try a different place and wound up at Dickinson Farm in Granby.

The farm is located right off Rt. 202 in Granby, but the apple barn itself is down a side road. I'd suggest doing what we did and going to the farm first to check out their pumpkins, mums and other goodies and get directions. This past weekend they were picking Cortland apples (you can call the apple barn at 413-467-3715 to find out what they're picking that particular day). They only offer 1 size - 1/2 a bushel bag for $20. That's a lot of apples when you're getting all one kind (about 20 lbs.), but Cortlands are very versatile, so we went for it.

The trip starts with a tractor ride out to the trees. Once there, they tell you where the trees are that are harvesting and let you at it. The day we went, the trees were laden with fruit, so you didn't have to do much hunting to find the apples:


Of course, that didn't keep me from getting right in the middle of everything, as usual:



I was a little disappointed that we didn't get the experience of hunting through the trees seeing what kinds of apples we could find, but the views made up for it:

Tonight I made a batch of applesauce and this weekend I have plans for an apple cake - stay tuned!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chicken & Dumplings - A comforting fall meal

Fall is in full swing here in the Pioneer Valley, which means cold nights and blustery weather. I always crave something warm and comforting this time of year. I can't think of much that's more warm and comforting than chicken soup - except when you add dumplings to it!

This was also my first time cooking with celeriac - and I was very happy with the results. (For those of you unfamiliar with celeriac, it's the root of a celery plant. When boiled, it's similar to a potato, but with less starch and more of a peppery bite. Very tasty! I really hope they have more next week at the CSA so I can stock up for the winter.)

Chicken and Dumplings

Ingredients
2 cups chicken broth
1 can reduced-fat cream of chicken soup
1 cup water
1 1/2 c. cooked chicken, chopped into bite sized pieces (I used chicken leftover from making broth)
3 carrots, sliced
1 small celeriac, cut into small cubes (cut this just before you add it to avoid browning)
salt & pepper to taste

1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 c. water
1 Tbsp. olive oil

Method
In a large saucepan, combine broth, cream of chicken soup and water over high heat. Whisk until mixture is smooth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add chicken and carrots. Cover and let simmer 15 minutes. Add celeriac and boil another 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare dumplings by mixing flour, baking powder and salt. Then stir in water and olive oil just until mixed (dough should be sticky).
Drop dough into simmering soup by teaspoonfuls. Cover and simmer 12-13 minutes until dumplings are cooked through.
Serve & enjoy!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sometimes it's the simple things...

Sometimes in life I think we get caught up in the trappings of it all - pretty clothes, fancy cars, sparkly jewels. This goes for food too, like a double espresso caramel latte with a fancy design on the top or a dessert plate drizzled with three kinds of sauce and topped with spun sugar. Sure, they're nice to look at, but looks aren't everything. Sometimes it's the basic things that pull us back to our roots, evoke fond memories and stir a sense of belonging that are best.

OK - so get to the point, right? Strangely enough, I'm waxing poetic about toast. Yup, toast. The folks at Foodbuzz and Nature's Pride graciously sent me out 2 loaves of Nature's Pride bread (100% whole wheat and 12-grain). And as I pondered what to do with this great, wholesome bounty (make bread pudding? French toast? cranberry sausage stuffing?), I realized that I didn't need fancy trappings to enjoy it. I love toast and toast is what I was going to have!
First off, a little bit about the bread. Nature's Pride makes 100% natural breads with no high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat, or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. The bread itself is hearty (and weighs in a 110 calories per slice), though I was surprised it didn't contain more fiber (only 3 grams per slice for the 100% wheat). It's the closest I've had to homemade bread from a store-bought loaf (a little fluffier on the inside and they'd have me 100%!).

After toasting up my slices, I spread a touch of butter and honey on each. Yum! It brings me right back to my childhood when Nanny (my grandmother) would take care of me on sick days and make me honey toast and tea with honey. Perfection on a plate, in my opinion. While it's my favorite way to have toast, I'll really take it any way I can get it - plain, with butter, with jam, with apple butter, with peanut butter, etc. I haven't found a way yet that I don't like it!

So tell me, how do you like your toast?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I'm back from the land of sunshine!

Mr. ValleyWriter and I headed out to California last week (hence the need to clean out the cupboards and fridge with those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink muffins the week before. We hit San Diego, Carlsbad, Temecula and LA/Hollywood. It was an awesome trip - and we crammed in a lot! But, it was my first time in CA, so I wanted to see as much as I could. I thought I'd share a few highlights (of course including some culinary highlights, too!)

First we started out in San Diego, where we hit the zoo:
Then we moved on to Carlsbad, where we saw some awesome sunsets over the ocean:

Then it was on to LA, where we went to one of the highlights of the trip - Pink's! (For those who don't know, Pink's is a famous hot dog stand in Hollywood.)

(I ordered a chili cheese dog, on the left; Mr. ValleyWriter ordered the "America the Beautiful" dog,
on the right.)

(Mr. ValleyWriter's dog was enormous! It was loaded with bacon, pastrami, lettuce and tomatoes - and he ate the whole thing!)

And our last stop was Temecula wine country:

It was a great trip, filled with sunshine, beaches, good food and good wine - but there's nothing like being home again. Fortunately, I have tons of photos and memories to last a long time.