Thursday, April 30, 2009
I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, seeing that New England isn't really known for its zoos. (In general, it's just too darn cold here for most exotic animals.) But on the road in, I caught a glimpse of an elephant and some camels and instantly got excited. It turned out we'd picked the perfect day to go - it had cooled off enough to be comfortable walking around and there weren't too many people there. We paid our entry fee (a steal, in my opinion, at about $16/each with our AAA card) and then spent 2 1/2 hours roaming around, checking out everything from Bengal tigers to giraffes to zebras.
(As you can see, the lions were having a nice afternoon nap...)
I guess I'm just a big kid at heart because I had a great time at the zoo. I'd definitely recommend it as an easy day trip from the Valley - or most anywhere in New England. And it's probably the closest to a trip around the world most of us will get anytime soon ;-)
Monday, April 27, 2009
Given the hot weather, I'm not very interested in spending time in front of my stove - or anywhere else inside, for that matter. The grill is definitely my friend this week. Tonight I made pizza on the grill. It may sound odd - and you may be nervous at first about the dough falling through the grills - but I swear it works like a charm! I made a margarita pizza with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, so I'm also entering this recipe in this month's Royal Foodie Joust.
I've always been a bit too intimidated by the ingredients list to join the joust... or at least worried that Mr. ValleyWriter wouldn't eat whatever I'd made. For example, I think the edible flowers from a couple of months ago would've made him run in the other direction. But this month's only requirements were colors - red, white and green. This pizza fits the bill perfectly and is something we can both enjoy. So, without further ado:
Grilled Margarita Pizza
(Note: I make my dough using a bread machine. You can substitute your favorite dough recipe - or use premade dough from the store.)
3/4 c. warm water
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/4 flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp yeast
1/2 c. pizza sauce
8-10 medium-sized basil leaves
1 ripe tomato
8 oz. part skim mozzarella cheese (whole - not shredded)
To make pizza:
Place dough ingredients in your bread machine pan in the order listed (or as directed by the manufacturer). Set to dough cycle.
When dough finishes, pour out onto a well floured surface. Mix in a little flour just until dough is no longer sticky. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you get the toppings ready.
Wash and dry basil leaves. Cut tomato into 1/4" slices and remove any large pockets of seeds (which can make the pizza watery). Cut mozzarella into 1/8"-1/4" slices.
Spray the grill generously with nonstick spray. Start it up, set to medium heat and close the cover. Let the grill heat about 3-4 minutes.
In the meantime, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Sprinkle a medium-sized cookie sheet with a little flour and place dough in the center. Spread dough out along the bottom of the cookie sheet until it is about 8-9" wide x 13-14" long.
Turn the grill down to medium-low heat. Invert the cookie sheet with the dough onto the grill. Let it sit about 1-2 minutes to make sure the dough releases, then pull off the cookie sheet using tongs or pot holders. (The pan will be HOT - don't touch it with your bare hands. Take it from someone who found out the hard way....)
Close the cover and let the dough cook about 5 minutes.
Spread sauce on top of dough. Layer basil, tomato slices and mozzarella slices on top. Close the cover and let cook another 15 minutes until dough is cooked and cheese is melted.
Remove from the grill and let cool about 10 minutes before serving.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
And the ValleyKitties (who are normally indoor cats) even got out for a bit of a (highly supervised) stroll tonight:
Don't worry - the bunny remained safe!
So what better way to end a hot summer day than with a barbeque! Mr. ValleyWriter cooked up some tender, yummy smoked ribs that I wanted to share. I'd never smoked anything before, but after he showed me how - I was surprised to see how easy it was. If you have some wood chips (available at discount department and home improvement stores) and a grill - you can do this.
Ingredients1 c. wood chips (we used hickory)
3-4 c. water
1 lb. country pork ribs
1/2 c. barbeque sauce
Put wood chips in a medium-sized bowl. Cover with water and soak for at least 30 minutes.
Drain wood chips and wrap in aluminum foil, leaving a 2-3" hole at the top of the aluminum foil packet (to allow smoke to escape).
Place wood chip packet on 1 side of the grill. If you have a gas grill, turn only the burner underneath that side of the grill on. Turn it to high heat, close the grill and let sit about 30 minutes until wood chips start to smoke.
Once chips start to smoke, place ribs on the opposite side of the grill, bone-side down. Turn the heat down to medium. Cook for about 25 minutes. Then flip ribs so they are meat-side down. Continue cooking 20-30 minutes until ribs are fully cooked (we cooked them to 160 degrees).
Remove ribs from grill, coat both sides with barbeque sauce and return to grill for 5more minutes.
That's really all there is to smoky, juicy, tender, flavorful ribs. Serve with a side of coleslaw and extra napkins, and enjoy!
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Since we were over 1000 miles from home, it wasn't realistic to save that cake for our anniversary. (In fact - we ate it for breakfast the next morning!)
So, lucky us then, that we had another chance with our second cake that we had at our reception. This was a tradition 3 tiered cake with several different layers - marble cake with vanilla pudding, vanilla cake with strawberry preserves and lemon cake with raspberry preserves. All were covered in classic buttercream and decorated with fresh orchids.
We saved the top layer - white cake with strawberry filling - to have on our first anniversary. I dutifully wrapped the cake in layers of cling wrap and foil, managed its move to our new house in the middle of July and protected it from any midnight cake cravings. But to be honest, I was a little worried about whether it was taste any good an entire year later.
So last night, after a wonderful, romantic dinner date, Mr. ValleyWriter and I unveiled the cake. Much to my surprise, it survived the year in pretty good condition - the frosting was nearly perfect!
But how about taste? It was great! The cake was still moist, the filling was perfectly intact and the flavors were surprisingly fresh.
So to the naysayers who said there was no point in saving the top - take that! And for the brides-to-be out there, here's how I kept our cake in great shape:
Step 1: Remove all non-edible decorations (flowers, toppers, etc.)
Step 2: Place cake uncovered in the freezer for 1-2 hours to help set the buttercream.
Step 3: Remove cake from freezer and wrap in a layer of plastic wrap. Press the plastic wrap to the sides of the cake to help remove any air. Repeat 4-5 times with crisscrossing layers of plastic wrap.
Step 4: Cover plastic-wrapped cake in 3 layers of aluminum foil. Again, press the foil toward the sides of the cake to help keep air out.
Step 5: Place wrapped cake in a cake box (to protect it from things falling on it in the freezer) and place in the freezer (kept at 0 degrees).
Step 6: The day before your anniversary, place the cake in the refrigerator to thaw.
Step 7: On your anniversary, unwrap and enjoy!
Sunday, April 19, 2009
I found a simple recipe over at A Year of CrockPotting (I love the ease of the crockpot!). I made a few changes to suit our tastes and what we're used to having in chow mein. (Specifically, the chow mein we usually get is just celery, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, meat and crunchy noodles. The original crockpotting recipe has more veggies and suggests serving over pasta.)
Check out the link above for the original recipe or give my modified version a try. Either way, I'm sure you'll be pleased.
Crockpot Pork Chow Mein
Ingredients:1 lb. pork (I used sirloin cutlets)
8 oz. celery hearts, julienned
2 c. water
8 oz. bamboo shoots
2 c. fresh mung beans
1/4 c. cornstarch
1/4 c. low-sodium soy sauce
3 Tbsp. molasses
Crispy chow mein noodles
Place pork and julienned celery into the crockpot. Pour 2 c. water over the top, cover and set to low for 6-7 hours.
After pork has cooked, pull it apart into small pieces with forks.
Add bamboo shoots and mung beans to the crockpot.
In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch and soy sauce until cornstarch is fully dissolved. Add in molasses and mix well.
Pour sauce over the top of meat and vegetables in crockpot, cover and cook on high for 1 hour.
Top with crispy chow mein noodles to serve.
Friday, April 17, 2009
6 gingersnap cookies
3 graham crackers
3 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 lb. fresh strawberries, hulled and divided
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 c. water
1/3 c. agave syrup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Crush gingersnaps and graham crackers into fine crumbs using a food processor. Add butter and pulse to combine.
Press crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9" pie pan.
Bake 10 minutes to set.
Meanwhile, mash up 1 lb. of the strawberries.
Place in a small saucepan, add water and bring to a boil.
Stir in cornstarch and agave and boil 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly to break up any clumps of cornstarch.
Remove from heat and let cool 15-20 minutes.
Halve remaining strawberries and place on top of the pre-baked pie crust.
Pour strawberry/agave mixture over the top.
Chill at least 4 hours before serving.
Top with whipped cream, if desired.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Monday, April 13, 2009
So last fall, I picked up a bunch of bulbs and diligently read the instructions on the back of the bags. Yup, that was my method for growing this fabulous new garden. No gardening books for me! Fortunately, it seemed to turn out well. Look - crocuses!
I also have some tulips shooting up! Exciting!
Flowers are the only thing I planted - or plan to plant - this year. Mr. ValleyWriter and I discussed doing a garden, but with my track record, I was afraid it would be a waste of money in seeds and tools. Instead, we joined our local CSA (community supported agriculture) farm - Mountain View Farm in Easthampton. For a really reasonable price (I thought), we get a share of the farm's crops for the season. They plan to have a wide variety of all-organic crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, beets, carrots, strawberries, watermelon and more!
Since moving to the Valley a couple of years ago, I've tried to visit a lot of farm stands and farmer's markets, but I have to admit, I've still bought a lot of grocery store produce (even when things were in season). So this year, I'm so excited to get fresh-from-the farm, organic, local veggies all summer long! If you're interested - it looks like they might still have shares to sell - go check out the Web site today. Only a month and a half until the first crops are ready!
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Friday, April 10, 2009
The restaurant itself has a Southwest-meets-sports-bar kind of feel. There was a bar to one side and a booths and tables on the other side. We were led to a booth and much to my surprise - there was a small TV right in the booth! All of the booths along the wall had them for our "viewing enjoyment."Now, I don't know about you, but I don't go out to restaurants to watch TV. Mr. ValleyWriter, on the other hand, was quite content to catch up on golf. And the young kids behind us also seemed quite happy to be able to watch their cartoons—at full volume. While I knew this was a casual restuarant, it wasn't quite the atmosphere I was looking for.
And the food? Eh. OK. Edible, I guess. We had a salad (basic iceberg lettuce) and a Mexican Pizza with chicken, tomatoes & jalapeno peppers.
The idea was interesting - and it looked appetizing - but the taste was a little disappointing. There was very little sauce and a TON of bland mozzarella, making the jalapenos about the only thing you could taste.
Maybe they think they can get away with mediocre food because of the great "atmosphere," but I think they need to reconsider that plan.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
So, with the dreary weather, I'm still in my winter baking mode. Tonight I was scouring the fridge when I came across a few carrots that were on their last legs. I figured carrot cake was in order - with cream cheese frosting, of course. I only had about 1 cup of carrots after they were shredded, so I made small carrot cakes (or carrot cupcakes, if you prefer).
Mini Carrot Cakes
(Makes 4 servings)
3 Tbsp. applesauce
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 c. shredded carrots
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
2 oz. neufchatel cheese, softened
1 c. confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease 4 medium ramekins (or large cupcake tins).
Mix egg, applesauce, oil, sugar and vanilla extract together in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and powder, salt and cinnamon. Beat into egg mixture until well combined. Stir in carrots.
Fill ramekins 2/3 full of batter.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
Cool cakes for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges and carefully tap cakes out onto a plate to finish cooling.
To make frosting, combine butter, neufchatel cheese, confectioner's sugar and vanilla in a small bowl. Beat on medium-high speed until smooth. (The ingredients will "liquefy" with enough beating - no need to add more liquid.)
Frost each cake with 1/4 of the frosting.