Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Simple Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

I'm not sure exactly what it is about bad weather that makes me want to break out the slow cooker, but it hardly ever fails. Maybe it's the thought of having a warm meal waiting for me after a long day of work, dealing with crazy drivers and shoveling snow... Or maybe it's that slow cooker foods are often comfort foods. Whatever it is, when I heard the weather forecast a few days ago calling for the snow/sleet/rain extravaganza we're having today, I decided some slow cooker pulled pork was in order.

This recipe serves at least 6, but if you need to serve more, just buy a bigger piece of pork.

Simple Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

3-3.5 lb. pork shoulder (also called a pork picnic)
1 bottle honey barbeque sauce
1 c. ketchup
1/3 c. maple syrup
1/4 c. apple cider vinegar

Place pork shoulder in the crock of your slow cooker, meat side down and fat side up. (Don't trim the fat before cooking. It will be removed later.)
Mix barbeque sauce, ketchup, maple syrup and apple cider vinegar in a small bowl. Pour over pork.
Cover slow cooker and cook on low for 10-12 hours until pork is falling apart. (If you need to speed the process up, cook on high for 1 1/2 hours, then set to low for 6-7 hours.)
Remove any bones and large hunks of fat from the pork, leaving only the meat. Using a fork, pull the meat apart until it's fully shredded.

I love to use this for pulled pork sandwiches (shown below with sweet potato fries), but it's also good served with a baked potato and some veggies. Enjoy!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Finally - A Granola Bar for Grownups That's Truly Delightful!

As part of the FoodBuzz Tastemaker's program, I recently got a nice package in the mail filled with Quaker#1074; True Delights Granola Bars to try out. Quaker bills these granola bars as being "an indulgent combination of real fruit, whole nuts and dark chocolate, mixed into wholesome honey-drizzled Quaker oats." They come in 3 flavors - dark chocolate raspberry almond, honey roasted cashew mixed berry, and toasted coconut banana macadamia nut.

The first clue that these granola bars are something different is the sleek black packaging, which, unlike most other granola bars out there, is suited much more for your Kate Spade bag than your hiking pack (or your kid's lunch box).

The next thing I looked at (of course) was the nutritional information. Sometimes I think I'm obsessed with the Nutrition Facts label, but I guess there are worse things in life to be obsessed with.... So, how do these bars stack up? I'd give them a "B" in the snack food category. Each variety has 140 calories, 3.5-5 grams of total fat, 3 grams of fiber and no cholesterol or trans-fat. The higher than usual fiber and average 4:1 ratio of unsaturated to saturated fat makes it a pretty good choice in my book (worlds better than a candy bar or a lot of other "low calorie" granola bars, but not the best I've ever seen from a nutritional standpoint).

I know what you're thinking - fine, they've got some fiber and not too much fat, but do they taste like cardboard? No way! The taste is great! The first one I tried was the toasted coconut banana macadamia nut and at first I thought I was biting into freshly made banana bread. The banana flavor was perfect, the coconut and honey drizzled oats added just the right amount of sweetness and the macadamia nuts gave it a smooth, rich texture that really did make me feel like I was indulging.

The next day I tried the honey roasted cashew mixed berry. Again, it had just the right amount of sweetness, with the berries (cranberries and cherries) giving it a pleasantly surprising burst of flavor. Mr. ValleyWriter tried out the dark chocolate raspberry almond and declared that it was good, tasted natural and had no funny after taste. (For those of you who don't know Mr. ValleyWriter - that's a glowing recommendation!) Another thing we both noticed was the bars weren't teeny weeny in size like the ones I often buy for road trips. These are reasonably sized for an adult to eat 1 and be satisfied.

The pamphlet I got with the granola bars says that a box of 5 bars will retail for about $3.50. That works out to $.70 a bar, which may be more than some other granola bars, but is still cheaper than a candy bar and a lot of other on-the-go snacks. And if you go to Quaker's website, you can get a $1 off coupon, making it an even better deal. So go on - try 'em. You'll be impressed!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Celebrating my 100th post with... Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies!

Almost 5 months into my blog, I've finally reached post #100! That seems like an auspicious milestone - and certainly something to celebrate. (OK - I really just wanted chocolate, but it seemed like a good rationalization...)

These cookies are based on a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but have cocoa added into the dough and both semi-sweet and white chocolate chips stirred in. I made them "bakery style," so they're nice and big. Absolutely delish!

Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies
(Makes 18 large cookies or about 3 dozen smaller cookies)

3/4 c. butter, melted
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 3/4 c. flour
1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c. white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, beat butter, brown sugar and white sugar together until creamy. Beat in the egg and egg yolk until well combined.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt together.
Beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well mixed.
Stir in both kinds of chocolate chips.
Using an ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup measuring cup, drop large balls of dough onto cookie sheets at least 3" apart.
Bake for 15-17 minutes until the edges darken slightly (the middles may look a little undone, but they'll finish cooking on the pan). Cool 5-10 minutes before removing from cookie sheets.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Esselon Cafe - Truly Something for Everyone

Sorry I've been MIA lately. I got an infection, which can be pretty serious with the RA meds I'm taking, so I've been down for the count for a few days. I also hadn't eaten much more than toast and graham crackers since Tuesday, so I didn't have much to say. But I know I'm on the mend because my appetite is back! So this morning we headed out to try a new (to us) breakfast place in Hadley.

I've passed Esselon Cafe many times, as it sits right on Rt. 9 between Hadley and Northampton. But I didn't realize they served breakfast until we recently went by earlier than usual and I saw parking lot full of cars. To me, a line out the door or a packed parking lot is one of the best signs of a good restaurant, so I knew we had to check it out.

As I entered the cafe, I thought I'd stepped into a Moroccan bazaar with the heavy fabric drapes around the front door, the dark walls interspersed with bursts of playful color in the artwork and the gold-gilded ceiling. I knew we were in for something more than your basic pancakes and eggs.

It took us a minute to figure out what to do because there appeared to be a hostess stand, but there was no hostess, nor a sign telling us to seat ourselves. But then we noticed an "order here" sign at the coffee counter, so we figured it must be a seat yourself/cafeteria kind of thing. We grabbed a couple of menus at the hostess stand and looked over the specials on the board, too. I was really surprised at the variety they had - everything from omelets to pancakes to breakfast tortillas. And they had quite a few vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan options.

I went with the Challah French toast and Mr. ValleyWriter picked the blueberry pancakes. We also ordered 2 Costa Rican coffees, which they roast right there on the premises. We got our coffees at the counter when we ordered and were told to pick a table and someone would bring out our order when it was ready.

We chose to sit in the main dining area, but there was also a porch area (closed in for the winter). I imagine it would be a beautiful place to have breakfast on a nice spring or summer morning. We sipped our coffee, which was excellent by the way - well balanced and smooth - just like I like it. As we waited, we noticed a lot of people on laptops and then saw the sign that advertised free wi-fi. This definitely seems like a cool place to sit back and browse online while sipping a coffee or cappuccino (they have those too).

Our order came out within about 10-15 minutes. I was really impressed at the careful presentation, with both the pancakes and French toast lightly dusted with confectioner's sugar and topped with a small piece of fruit and a sprig of mint.

At each table was a small pitcher of local maple syrup, the perfect accompaniment to both of our breakfasts. Both breakfasts were good and just the right portions. We left feeling satisfied, but not stuffed to our gills.

My only negative comments are that the seat yourself/pick up your own dishes when you're done atmosphere is a bit out of sorts with the overall decor of the restaurant and presentation of the food. It almost makes it feel like a high-end cafeteria. And for $23 (before tip) for 2 breakfasts, I guess I expected a bit more. A bit more what you ask? I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like something was missing. Maybe it was the interaction with a server or hostess or at least someone. I felt like if the person running the register hadn't told us the total, we might not have been spoken to at all.

Nonetheless, Esselon Cafe makes a decent breakfast and can accommodate a wide variety of dietary needs. So if you're in the area and looking for something different, vegetarian, vegan or even gluten-free - why not give it a try?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Need a Pick-Me-Up? Try Tiramisu!

We had a little dinner party this weekend and I made one of my favorite desserts - Tiramisu. In case you didn't know, the word "tiramisu" is Italian for pull-me-up (or pick-me-up) and this dessert will certainly put a little zip in your step with sugar and coffee. I don't think you can eat tiramisu without a moan of delight and a smile. Enjoy!


6 egg yolks
1 1/4 c. white sugar
1 c. marscapone cheese
1 3/4 c. heavy whipping cream
2 (3 oz. each) packages of soft lady fingers
1 c. strongly brewed coffee
1/2 c. kahlua or amaretto

For garnish (optional):
1/4 unsweetened cocoa
dark chocolate curls

Combine egg yolks and sugar in the top of a double boiler over boiling water.
Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, whisking constantly.
Remove from heat and whip egg/sugar mixture until thick and lemon-colored.
Add marscapone cheese to the egg/sugar mixture and beat until well combined.
In a separate bowl, beat heavy whipping cream into stiff peaks.
Gently fold the whipped cream into the yolk mixture.
In a small bowl, combine coffee and kahlua/amaretto.
Line the side of a 9" springform pan with about 1/3 of the lady fingers.
Dip 1/2 of the remaining lady fingers quickly into coffee/alcohol mixture to soak and then place into bottom of springform pan.
Spread 1/2 of marscapone mixture on top of the ladyfingers.
Dip remaining lady fingers into coffee/alcohol mixture and place on top of marscapone layer.
Spread remaining marscapone mixture on top.
If desired, sprinkle unsweetened cocoa over the top of the marscapone mixture and top with dark chocolate curls.
Refrigerate at least 24 hours before serving.
Remove outer ring of springform pan before serving.

(If you don't have a springform pan, this can also be made in a 9 x 13" pan. Just use 1/2 of the ladyfingers for the bottom layer and the other 1/2 for the middle layer - don't use any on the sides.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hearty Slow Cooker Vegetable Beef Soup

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but my crockpot is so delightful.... :-) My jaw is feeling better, but I still had the ingredients for 1 more soup, so I threw this together in the crockpot this morning and sat back to watch the snow fall outside. As much as I normally complain about winter, it truly is beautiful - the pure white, fluffy flakes covering the landscape. And it's a great excuse to curl up with a good book under a warm blanket and eat hearty soup. Not only does the slow cooker make this recipe super easy, it's a large recipe, so you'll have plenty of leftovers to freeze for a quick dinner another night.

Hearty Slow Cooker Vegetable Beef Soup
(Makes 8-10 servings)

1/2 lb. stew beef, cut into small cubes (1/2" or less)
2 cups frozen corn
2 cups green beans, ends trimmed and cut in 1/2

3 large carrots, diced
1 large potato, peeled and sliced
1 large (24-28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 c. warm water
1 pkg. beef onion soup mix

Combine beef and vegetables in the crock of your slow cooker (do not drain the crushed tomatoes - you want that liquid). Mix beef onion soup mix in 1 1/2 c. warm water to help dissolve. Pour over beef and vegetables and stir. Cover and cook on low 7-8 hours until vegetables are tender.

Note: You can use canned vegetables in place of fresh/frozen - but look for the low sodium varieties. The dried soup mix adds enough salt. Also, you can add more beef to this if you want. I just wanted to make the vegetables the stars of the show!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Opa Opa Steakhouse & Brewery - Running on Country Time

Mr. ValleyWriter was about fed up with the soup/soft food diet, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and suggested we try out Opa Opa Steakhouse & Brewery in Southampton for lunch since we had a gift certificate to go there.

When we arrived, the first thing we noticed walking up to the restaurant was the fairly loud, twangy country music. I guess it's to be expected at a steakhouse with a cowboy in the logo, but it did make us think twice about whether we were sure we wanted to do this (Mr. ValleyWriter & I both have an intense aversion to twangy country music). We decided to brave it and fortunately, the music was much quieter as soon as we stepped inside the door of the restaurant.

The decor matched the country theme - dark walls, a rustic knotty wood bar, bathrooms labeled "outhouse," etc. Surprisingly enough though, the tables are set with linen napkins and goblet water glasses, so I guess you'd call this high falutin' country-kitch.

For lunch, they had both the full regular menu and a lunch specials menu. They had everything from soup and salad to a 12 oz. steak to a vegetarian sandwich. They also offer a full selection of their locally brewed beer. As we looked over the menu, I kept thinking I'd better figure out what I wanted to drink before the server came. But by the time she finally did, we had long decided on not only our drinks, but also an appetizer and our main meals.

Mr. ValleyWriter had the Honest 47 beer and a hamburger and I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. We shared an order of buffalo wings for an appetizer. The server went off to place our order and returned shortly with the drinks. I had just a sip of Mr. ValleyWriter's beer (I'm not allowed to have much alcohol due to my RA meds) and I thought it was very nice. A nice hoppy flavor, yet still smooth and light.

The appetizer came out in about 15 minutes. We had ordered the "5 alarm" buffalo wings, and while these were nicely spiced, I wouldn't call them insanely hot or 5 alarm. They were well cooked and well spiced and tasted great with the blue cheese dressing and celery sticks on the side.

The wait between our appetizer and lunch seemed a bit on the long side, especially since we hadn't seen our server since she brought the first round of drinks (someone else brought the appetizer). My pulled pork sandwich came on Texas toast (thickly sliced white bread) with sliced tomatoes and mixed greens, along with a side of thick cut steak fries. Mr. ValleyWriter's burger had cheese, tomatoes and lettuce, again with a side of the steak fries.

My pulled pork was perfectly smothered in a sweet and slightly tangy BBQ sauce and was melt-in-your-mouth tender. It was so saucy that it turned the bottom piece of Texas toast a bit soggy, but I just took off the top piece of bread and ate it like an open faced sandwich. Mr. ValleyWriter's burger was cooked medium, just as ordered and tasted like it'd been cooked over an open flame - not just an industrial kitchen griddle. It had that special charbroiled crunch around the edges that brings me back to 4th of July cookouts. The steak fries were excellent - crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside.

We managed to finish most of our plates, but we were stuffed! We knew we wouldn't want dessert, so we were just chatting and waiting for the check. And waiting. And waiting. A good 15 minutes after we'd completely finished our lunch, pushed our plates away and put our napkins on the table, the server reappeared to ask us how everything was and if we needed anything else.

So what's the bottom line with Opa Opa? My opinion is that stepping into Opa Opa is like going to the South, where everything moves a little slower. The food is good and the pacing would probably be good for a dinner date or a night out with friends, but it was a little on the slow side for lunch (in total, we were there for about 1 1/2 hours). We have some money left over on our gift certificate, so I think we'll save it for the summer when they have outside dining. They can take all the time in the world if I can bask in the sun and sip on a nice cool beer (hopefully by then I'll be allowed!).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Creamy Pumpkin Soup with a Kick

Not sure if it's my RA or if I've been grinding my teeth again at night, but my jaw has been pretty sore the last couple of weeks, so I put myself on a soft foods diet this week. Mr. ValleyWriter is about soup-ed out, but even he enjoyed this creamy, spicy pumpkin soup tonight (for the 2nd time this week, no less).

I made this with the last of the frozen pumpkin puree I had from the fall and some of the turkey stock I froze after Thanksgiving, but it can also be made with canned pumpkin (about 3 of the 15 oz. cans) and canned chicken broth. Be warned - this makes a lot of pumpkin soup - at least 6 large main dish servings.

Kicked Up Pumpkin Soup
3 Tbsp. butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/8 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. yellow curry powder
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
6 cups pumpkin puree
5 cups turkey stock
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup fat-free half and half

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic an saute 3-4 minutes until softened. Stir in spices and cook another 1-2 minutes.
Add the pumpkin puree and turkey stock to the saucepan. Stir well to blend. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove saucepan from heat and puree soup in blender in batches until smooth. Return to saucepan.
Over low heat, add the brown sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Slowly pour in the milk and cream. Stir until well blended.
For a little extra pizazz, you can drizzle some of the half and half over the soup before serving:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Finally - a high fiber breakfast that tastes good!

I don't do a lot of product reviews on this site, but one of my latest finds is so awesome, it deserves mention. About 3 months ago when the weather turned cooler and I was looking for a heartier, warmer breakfast, I discovered Quaker® had come out with a high fiber oatmeal. I'm a big advocate for eating lots of fiber, so I had to give it a try. (Just in case you're wondering what's so great about fiber - it keeps you feeling full, which can help you maintain or lose weight; also, it can help lower your cholesterol, reduce the risk of stomach problems and keep blood sugar levels steadier.)

It currently comes in 2 flavors - maple & brown sugar and cinnamon swirl. Each box comes with 8 packets of instant oatmeal and costs about $4. That seems like a lot for oatmeal, but when you figure it works out to about 50 cents a day for 8 days of breakfast, it's no so bad.

Given the higher than usual price tag, I started with just 1 box of cinnamon swirl. Each packet of the cinnamon swirl oatmeal has 160 calories, 2 grams of fat (0.5 grams of that is saturated fat) and a whopping 10 grams of fiber (8 grams of which is soluble fiber). That's almost as much fiber as there is in a serving of most "high fiber" cold breakfast cereals, but those pretty much taste like cardboard. So how does the cinnamon swirl oatmeal taste? YUMMY!! It's sweet and cinnamony and tastes exactly like you'd expect instant oatmeal to taste - not doctored up or cardboardy or anything.

On my next shopping trip, I tried out the maple & brown sugar variety. Each packet again has 160 calories, 10 grams of fiber (8 grams soluble) and 2 grams of fat, but there's no saturated fat in this variety. The maple & brown sugar is also very tasty and smells wonderful when you make it, but it's a bit sweeter than the cinnamon swirl and a little too sweet for my taste. (My trick for this is to leave out some of the flavoring that always seems to sit in the bottom of the packet when you pour it out.) But Mr. ValleyWriter loves this flavor the best and I bet it would be great for kids.

Interested yet? You should be! Seriously, if you want to get more fiber in your diet, this is a great place to start. And you can get a $1 off coupon at the Quaker website, making it a bit more affordable.

(And before anyone asks - no, Quaker did not pay me for this review, nor did I receive any free products from them. It's just a really good product!)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Keep your New Year's resolution and eat cookies, too!

It should be pretty clear by now that I have a weakness for sweets. Unfortunately, sweets are often high in fat and low in fiber and other elements of good nutrition. I've really been trying to cut back on my sweets over the last week and a half, but I finally gave in to my craving for cookies tonight. Except this time I set out to create a healthier, lower-fat cookie that still tasted good.

I started with an old oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. In place of butter, I used pumpkin puree (which doesn't really have much flavor when used this way). I also cut down on the sugar and added an extra egg white for binding. I think not skimping out on the chocolate chips is the real trick. In the end, I got a cookie that's soft, chewy and chocolaty, yet low in fat and loaded with fiber. Give them a try!

Low-Fat Oatmeal Chocolate Chip New Year's Resolution Cookies
(Makes 3 dozen)

1 c. pumpkin puree (still working on my freezer stash of pumpkins from Fletcher's in Southampton!)
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 egg white
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. old-fashioned oats
1 c. chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Blend pumpkin and sugars until smooth and creamy. Beat in egg, egg white and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt.
Beat flour mixture into pumpkin mixture.
Stir in oats and chocolate chips.
Drop dough by tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each cookie.
Bake 12-15 minutes until cookies are browned and set.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Homemade Multigrain Bread

A little over a year ago, I inherited a bread maker. I'd never made homemade bread before and thought it would be fun to try (especially since the bread maker was free!). I tried one or two of the basic recipes included in the instruction manual, but I honestly wasn't that impressed. And then we got busy with wedding plans and house buying - so bread making kind of went by the way side.

But this fall, I pulled the bread maker back out and started experimenting with some of my own recipes. I hadn't been able to find or come up with a good multigrain recipe - until now. This recipe comes out soft and light - not dense and heavy like many whole grain breads. I use the bread machine dough cycle to have the machine do the kneading for me, but you can make this recipe by hand, too (see the notes at the end of recipe for those instructions).

Multigrain Bread


1 c. warm water (it should just be warm enough so when you feel it on your skin, you don't feel a temperature difference - too hot and you'll kill the yeast)
1/3 c. milk
2 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces
1 tsp. salt
1 1/4 c. all purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat bread flour
2/3 c. oat bran
4 Tbsp. cornmeal
4 tsp. vital wheat gluten
2 tsp. yeast
1-2 Tbsp. oats

Put ingredients into the pan of your bread machine in the order listed (or as directed by your bread machine).

Set the machine to the dough cycle and start. After a few minutes, open the bread machine to check the dough consistency. If it looks too sticky and loose, add a little extra all-purpose flour (about 1 tsp. at a time). If it's too dry, add a little extra water (again, about 1 tsp. at a time).

When it's the right consistency, the dough should form a soft ball around the paddle of the machine.

When the dough cycle is done, remove the dough. Punch the dough down and form it into a football-like shape by tucking the long sides underneath and pinching each end underneath. Place the dough on a lightly greased baking sheet or pizza stone and lightly sprinkle with oats.

Cover dough with wet towel and let rise about 30 minutes until dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Once oven is preheated, bake bread for 35-40 minutes until crust is browned and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

-This is equivalent to a 1 1/2 lb. loaf recipe - so make sure your bread machine can accommodate that size (or reduce the recipe).

- To make by hand, proof the yeast by adding it to 2 Tbsp. of the warm water and mixing in about 1/2 tsp. sugar. Let sit 5-10 minutes until frothy. Then mix in the salt, water, milk and honey and stir well. In a separate bowl, mix together your grains. Then start mixing the grains into the liquid. Continue adding grains until the dough holds together well, but isn't crackly or dry (you may not use all of the grains). Knead the dough for 15-20 minutes until smooth. Let rise 30 minutes, punch down and follow instructions above from the point of taking the dough out of the bread machine.

-If you want, you can bake the bread in the bread machine. This works especially well if you want to make bread that's shaped just right for sandwiches. Baking by hand on a pizza stone gives it a more artisanal look.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sylvester's - Good breakfast, but is it really the valley's best?

Every year in the Pioneer Valley, The Valley Advocate, a local newspaper, does a "Best of the Valley" reader poll. They gather everything from reader's favorite bars to their favorite bank to their favorite auto parts store. My favorite category, of course, is the dining section. It includes categories like best bakery, best Indian restaurant, best micro brew beer, etc.

For the last few years that I've been living in the valley, Sylvester's in Northampton has always won for best breakfast. We've eaten at Sylvester's several times, especially early on in our valley life, when we didn't know any other breakfast places. Now that I've expanded my breakfast horizons, I decided to go back to Sylvester's to see how it really stacks up.

First, a little background. The restaurant is housed in the former home of Sylvester Graham, hence the name Sylvester's. But who was Sylvester Graham? Believe it or not, he was the inventor of the graham cracker! And to this day, the restaurant serves an incredible Sylvester Graham cappucino complete with a chocolate covered graham cracker on the side - yum!

OK - the next thing you should know about Sylvester's is that you have to time your visit just right if school (college) is in session. If so, plan to get there before about 9am on the weekend - or plan to wait in line. Of course, if school's not in session, there's usually no wait. In this visit, we were able to walk right in and choose our booth. And while you wait for your server to come take your order (or for your order to come out), be sure to take advantage of the old Trivial Pursuit® cards on the table to quiz your dining partner.

As far as breakfast offerings go, Sylvester's has a wide selection. They have omelets, several different kinds of eggs Benedict, pancakes, French toast (including banana bread French toast - yum!), homemade granola, bagels and more. They also have a full list of specialty drinks, like cafe mocha, cappuccino, mimosas, etc. On this visit, Mr. ValleyWriter ordered the classic eggs Benedict:

And I went with the huevos rancheros:

The eggs Benedict was done just as you'd expect - English muffin on the bottom, topped with ham, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce, sprinkled with a little paprika and served with a side of home fries. The eggs Benedict itself was very tasty, but the home fries were fairly bland and a little on the mushy side. I like my home fries nice and crispy.

The huevos rancheros is a bowl of black beans covered with cheese, topped with fresh salsa, 2 fried eggs and sour cream, served with 2 large pieces of freshly made cornbread. It is absolutely delicious from start to finish, if you can finish it. (I usually can't - but that's where Mr. ValleyWriter comes in.)

Just as important as food - how's the service? Fair, I'd say. In general, the servers are pleasant and efficient. Though if they're busy, it can be a long wait to spot your server to get a glass of water or the check. And if you order a speciality coffee drink, which comes from their cafe in the next room, plan to wait a while for it. On this last visit, when they really weren't busy at all, my cafe mocha took at least 15-20 minutes to come out. (In fact, it came just after my meal.)

So what's the verdict? Well, for creativity, Sylvester's definitely gets a gold star. They have more unique breakfast offerings than some of the other restaurants in town. But, not everything they do is terrific - the home fries above being one example of that. Also, their prices are on the high side. For 2 meals, a cafe mocha and a regular coffee, the total came to about $25 (before tip). And their kids breakfasts seem way too expensive - 1 pancake and a small juice for $4.95??? That's kind of crazy.

So would I give Sylvester's my vote for the best breakfast in the Pioneer Valley?
Taking into account both taste and value, probably not. I think I'd have to give it to The Stables in Hadley. Their breakfasts are hearty, their waitresses friendly and their prices down to Earth. But I wouldn't rule Sylvester's out entirely. Just like I have dinner restaurants that I save for special occasions, Sylvester's is my go-to for special occasion breakfasts.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Maple Dijon Salmon

Like many other resoluters (or is it resolutites? resoluti?), I vowed to eat healthier this year. It's not that I need to lose weight or that my diet is really bad, but I know that I could stand to eat more vegetables, fish and beans and less desserts. Yes - dessert is really my weakness. I honestly would be happy to skip dinner most nights and head straight to dessert, but that's not exactly the best way to get your vitamins & nutrients!

This week, I brought a little bit of dessert to our dinner by making a maple Dijon salmon. It was quite simple and quite delicious. And since I served it with pea pods and broccoli & cheese rice - it fulfills 2 out 3 goals (more veggies & more fish).

Here's the salmon recipe:

1/4 c. pure maple syrup (locally made is always best!)
1 1/2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. soy sauce
2 salmon steaks (about 1 1/4 inch thick - approx. 1 lb.)

Preheat oven to 400 degree and spray 8 x 8 casserole dish with cooking spray.
In a small saucepan, combine maple syrup, Dijon mustard and soy sauce. Whisk over medium heat 2-3 minutes until mixture is runny and ingredients are fully mixed.
Place salmon steaks in casserole dish. Pour maple syrup mixture over steaks.
Cook salmon in oven for 12-14 minutes until fully cooked, flipping steaks over 1/2 way through cooking. Remove skin from salmon before serving (it should pull off easily with tongs if salmon is fully cooked.)

I fully admit to using frozen pea pods & rice (Green Giant® makes some pretty good sides!). When you can't get fresh local vegetables, the frozen ones are a pretty good substitute. Not too mention quick & easy!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lions, Bongos and Beaches - Oh My!

Let's play "Where in the world is ValleyWriter." Here are some hints:

Confused yet? It's Virginia! The first 3 pictures are from the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk and the last one is on the beach in Virginia Beach. We went down over the New Year's break to visit my brother and his family. It wasn't quite as warm as I'd hoped it would be, but we still had fun exploring and most importantly, playing with my cute little niece who's almost 2 (and who we don't get to see too often).

In addition to our zoo & beach trips, we also managed to get in a few yummy meals (of course!). One of them was at Rockafeller's, just a few streets back from the beach on the Rudee Inlet. The restaurant sits overlooking the inlet, with boats passing by and the sun gleaming off the water through the tall windows. We went for lunch and had quite a variety of great seafood options to choose from as well as a few non-seafood options (but when you're at the ocean - you might as well take advantage of it!).

Mr. ValleyWriter and I both went for the fish & chips lunch special. After we put in our order, our waiter brought out a bread basket. But this was no typical northern bread basket. In addition to warm slices of French bread, it also had incredibly moist hunks of cornbread. I think your arrival to the South is incomplete until the cornbread has been served!

After enjoying too much bread (as usual), our fish and chip plates came out. Each had about 3-4 pieces of lightly battered white fish (haddock, I think), tartar sauce, waffle french fries and tomato salad.

The fish was incredibly fresh and perfectly cooked. It wasn't greasy at all, which can be a downfall of fried fish. The tomato salad was a refreshing way to break up the fried fish and french fries and added a lighter feel to the dish. Little ValleyNiece had the kids pasta and she seemed to really enjoy it. The waiter was also very nice to her, so I think it's fair to call this a good family-friendly restaurant. If we're back in VA beach in the warmer months, I'd definitely try Rockafeller's again to get the chance to sit outside on the large deck and watch the boats go by.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Yummy Breakfast Casserole

Happy New Year everyone! I'm back from my recent trip (with a Virginia Beach restaurant review soon to follow) and have settled in enough to squeeze in a quick post. I actually made this breakfast casserole for Christmas, but just didn't have the time to post it before the New Year's trip. It's a great recipe for any day, especially those when you want to visit with company or just relax in the morning, since you do all the prep work the night before. I used red and green veggies to be festive, but you can use whatever you like.

Sausage Breakfast Casserole
(Serves 6)

1/2 pkg. (8 oz.) bulk breakfast sausage, cooked and drained
2 cups day old white bread, cubed
1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
6 eggs
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. salt
1 c. broccoli, cooked and chopped
1/2 c. roasted red pepper, diced

Grease a 7 x 11 baking dish.
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, evaporated milk, mustard and salt until well blended.
Spread bread cubes in the bottom of greased baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese.
Pour egg mixture over bread and cheese.
Crumble sausage over the mixture. Spread broccoli and roasted red pepper evenly over the top.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (at least 8 hours, but I've done it up to 16).
In the morning, preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Remove plastic wrap from casserole and bake 50-60 minutes until eggs are fully set and top is browned. (Cover with foil 1/2 way through if it browns too quickly.)