Sunday, May 31, 2009

A sweet way to end the day

After 4 days of straight rain last week, we got another taste of summer this weekend. We spent as much time as we could outside, mowing, gardening, walking, biking... and just chillin' on the porch. So I couldn't think of any better way to end a summery weekend (if it has to end) than with some fresh strawberry shortcake.

A lot of times I just use Bisquick® biscuits for my shortcake (or even store-bought, if I'm in a hurry), but I didn't have any Bisquick on hand, so I made my biscuits from scratch. They're pretty much just a buttermilk scone (I seem to be doing a lot of those lately!). Here's the recipe:

2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. baking powder
4 Tbsp. salted butter, chilled
3/4 c. - 1 c. buttermilk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar and baking powder. Add in butter and pulse until crumbly. Pour mixture out into a medium bowl.
In a separate small bowl, combine buttermilk and vanilla. Slowly start pouring the vanilla buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture, stirring constantly just until dough comes together in a sticky ball. (You may not use all the buttermilk.)
Divide into 6 pieces and place on a greased baking sheet.
Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool completely before slicing for strawberry shortcake.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Texas Caviar - Makes mouths, wallets & waistlines happy!

A couple of weeks ago, I had a change in my RA medications, which resulted in a flare. So to get things back under control, I've been on a round of prednisone. While the drug does wonders, it has a myriad of possible side effects, one of which is hunger. I made it through the first week unscathed, but this week, my appetite has come into full bloom. I'm like a 16 year old boy after football practice - watch out!

Of course, as we all know, the more you put in your mouth, the more of you there is to love... but not always in a good way ;-) It's been my mission this week to find tasty snacks to help me get through this insane hunger without feeling too guilty. My favorite find so far has been Texas Caviar:

Packed full of veggies, beans and flavor, this can be eaten with tortilla chips (the "Texas Toast Points" of the caviar equation) or as a side salad. The cilantro adds a refreshing earthiness that's perfect for warm nights out on the deck. Best of all, it's full of fiber and nutrients, so you can feel good about eating it (at least, I did!).

I got the idea from AllRecipes after entering black beans, corn and cilantro (which I had on hand) into their ingredient search. I ended up mixing and matching ingredients from 2 recipes (Best-Ever Texas Caviar and Cowboy Caviar) and tailoring it based on what we like and what I had on hand. The resulting recipe made a TON of this stuff; fortunately, it holds up well in the refrigerator for several days. The whole big bowl only uses about $5 worth of ingredients, so it would make a very economical party dip, too.

Here's what I did:

1 (15.5 oz.) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15.5 oz.) can black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 (11 oz.) can corn with red and green peppers
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes with chilies
1/4 c. sliced jalapenos
3/4 c. fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 c. rice wine vinegar
1/3 c. olive oil
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Combine beans, black-eyed peas, corn, tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro in a large bowl.
In a small saucepan, combine rice wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar and garlic powder. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar fully dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Pour over bean mixture, stir and refrigerate at least 4 hours to let flavors come together.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The People's Pint - Good beer, good food, good fun!

Mr. ValleyWriter and I went out to The People's Pint in Greenfield with some friends last night. I think we'd been there a couple of years ago for a quick drink, but I really didn't remember the place and wasn't exactly sure what to expect. But, we've had good luck with other local brew pubs in the area (Northampton Brewery, Opa Opa, etc.), so I was hoping for the best.

I thought it might be a little quiet going on a Wednesday night, but I was mistaken. When we got there just before 7, at least 1/2 the bar and 3/4 of the tables were full. One of the most interesting things, to me, was the diversity in the people - from single folks getting a drink after work, to couples enjoying a date, to full families with kids having dinner. The restaurant is really just one big room with he bar and dining area together, which isn't a situation in which you see kids in every day. It was pretty cool though, and reminded me of my trips to Wales and Ireland, where you find people of all ages at the pubs - from 8 months to 80 years! And just like in those pubs, everyone at The People's Pint was having fun, happily chatting and enjoy their meals. I don't know about you - but I'm a sucker for that kind of jovial atmosphere.

Upon sitting down, our first task was to pick out which beer to try. While I'm not a regular beer drinker, I can't resist trying new locally brewed beers. It's just so much better than the national brand stuff, I might well become a regular beer drinker if I had access to it all the time. One of the nice things at The People's Pint (and many other small breweries) is that they give a full description of their beers on the menu - so you can get an idea of what something is like before you order it. The People's Pint even includes the alcohol % on the menu - so you know what you're getting into.

Since it was "a school night" (OK - I'm not in school anymore, but I still think that way), I wanted something light and easy - certainly NOT the Slippery Slope, which weighed in at 9% alcohol. (Yikes!) I went with the shWheat (aka summer honey wheat), which was very accurately described as a light summer beer with hints of citrus and free of any bitterness. At only 3.1% alcohol, it was just a nice light, refreshing drink that easily let me keep my status as the designated driver.

As for food, the menu posted a good variety of "pub fare," with some unexpected twists. While they certainly had their fare share of red meat on the menu, it was all grass-fed beef from nearby farms. In fact, many of the options on the menu included organic, locally grown/produced foods, which is always a bonus in my book. I was really tempted to have a burger to enjoy the grass-fed beef, but my conscience was nagging that I'd already had beef this week and I should really go for something else. So instead I went with the black bean burrito with jalapenos and Mr. ValleyWriter had a pulled pork sandwich. (I was secretly hoping he'd order a burger so I could have a bite, but no such luck...)

Both meals came with mixed green salads topped with fresh sprouts and homemade light vinaigrettes, which were excellent. My black bean burrito had just the right amount of cheese to be tasty, but not a heart-attack on a plate. And the jalapenos added just the right amount of heat. Mr. ValleyWriter's pulled pork was nice and tender, and they went easy on the BBQ sauce, so you could actually enjoy the flavor of the pork. In the end, I was very happy with what I ordered - it was a fresh, filling, healthy choice - but I still really want to try that grass-fed beef burger. It just sounded so succulent and yummy!

Three beers (don't worry, I kept my DD status by only having 1), 2 entrees and the tip came to just about $40, making it a pretty good value for Valley dining. While we didn't get to experience it, they do have live entertainment several nights a week, which would be fun to check out some time. Just be warned - they don't take credit or debit cards here, so stop by the ATM (right across the street) on your way in. I normally avoid places that don't take card because I find it inconvenient to get cash, but trust me, The People's Pint is worth it!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Welcome summer!

In New England, and probably elsewhere around the country, Memorial Day is the unofficial start to the summer season. The summer solstice may be nearly a month away yet, but that's not getting us down! The town beaches are opening, grills are being fired up, families are gathering for backyard parties - and thank goodness, Mother Nature is looking down on us with a sun dripped smile.

Today, Mr. ValleyWriter and I are off to the in-laws for our first official summer BBQ. I love BBQs and all the better when I'm not hosting and frantic about whether there's a spec of dirt on the floor. Of course, I won't be going empty handed. We always chip in for family BBQs and my contribution today is a yummy Greek pasta salad.

My mother-in-law suggested something meatless so my sister-in-law, who's vegetarian, would be able to partake. Having had various food intolerances in the past, I know how not fun it can be to go to a party where there's nothing you can eat, so I wanted to create something I knew my sister-in-law would love. Immediately, I thought of a Greek salad - playing up on her love for olives and feta.

I just stirred it up and sampled it after having let it chill overnight and it turned out just like I wanted - smooth and flavorful with just a little kick from the spices at the end. (Sure beats the macaroni, cucumber, tomato and mayo pasta salads of my childhood...) It's sure to be a hit at any summer BBQ, if I do say so myself!

Greek Pasta Salad


For dressing:
1/2 c. olive oil
1 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1 1/4 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. chives
1 tsp. mustard powder
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar

16 oz. rotelli pasta, cooked
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 - 3/4 c. ripe pitted olives
1/2 cucumber, diced
2-3 roasted red peppers, diced
6 oz. feta, broken into chunks

To make dressing, combine olive oil and spices and mix well. Add in vinegars and whisk (or shake in a covered container) until fully combined.
In a large bowl, combine pasta, tomatoes, olives, cucumber and roasted red peppers. Drizzle dressing over the pasta and stir well to thoroughly mix.
Fold in feta, being careful not to crumble it up too much.
Cover and chill at least 4 hours or overnight before serving. Stir well before serving.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Trees, Sweeter Maple Syrup - Coomb's Family Farms

When I got an e-mail last week asking if I'd like to review some organic maple products from Coombs Family Farms out of nearby Brattleboro, VT, I was more than willing. I love real maple syrup - not just for its pancake enhancing abilities, but also for the flavor and depth it adds to so many foods - sweet and savory. And I was curious to find out exactly what would make this maple syrup any more "organic" than what I buy locally and whether that would come through in the taste. I didn't have to wait long to find out, as package was waiting for me when I got home on Friday. (What better way to start the weekend than surprise packages, right?!)

When I opened the package, I found a nice bottle of grade B organic maple syrup, some maple candy and a bunch of wonderful recipes to use the syrup in - everything from Maple Chipotle BBQ Sauce to Maple Mojitos! (You know me - I'll be keeping that mojito recipe handy. But it just didn't seem appropriate for breakfast this morning!)

So you ask, as I did, what makes some maple syrup organic and some not? It really starts at the source - the maple trees. These trees are old friends to the small independent farmers who make up the Coombs Family Farms cooperative and they treat them just as you would a dear friend. No chemical fertilizers are used on or even near the trees, and "healthy taps" are used to ensure the trees aren't overtapped for short term gains, to the detriment of the trees. These healthy taps reduce the damage to the trees by as much as 50% or more, which explains why Arnold Coombs, the current proprietor of this 7th generation maple farm, is still tapping trees that his great great grandfather tapped over 140 years ago. And of course, there are never any preservatives or additives in Coombs maple syrup - just pure, sweet golden goodness.

So, how does it measure up? Incredibly! I had Mr. ValleyWriter do a blind taste test between some non-organic grade B maple syrup we bought locally this winter, the Coombs Family Farms grade B maple syrup and some fake pancake syrup I have on hand (in case we get a young breakfast guest who doesn't "do" maple syrup.)

Being a true New Englander, Mr. ValleyWriter spotted the fake stuff (all the way on the right) right off the bat. Too sweet and sticky and not mapley enough for us. Next he tried the non-organic syrup (left), then the organic (middle), then the non-organic, then the organic again. It took him a minute, but he was able to pick out the organic syrup. Even though it was the same grade as the non-organic syrup, the organic syrup was a little lighter and sweeter on the tongue, but it still had all the wonderful maple flavor we so love.

While grade B syrup is often considered more of a cooking syrup due to its higher viscosity and deeper flavor, this organic syrup has the best of both worlds - easily pourable and full of deep, rich flavor. I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that happier trees must just make sweeter syrup!

For being such a good sport, I had to make Mr. ValleyWriter something special for breakfast. And while this maple syrup would be good on pancakes, that wasn't quite the ticket this morning. Instead, I changed up my drop scone recipe to make a maple raisin scone, complete with crumbled 100% pure maple candy (also from the Coombs Family Farms) baked on to the top.

Just as I had hoped, they came out moist and sweet and won great acclaim from our happy little taste tester. Here's the recipe:

Maple Raisin Drop Scones


2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
3/4 c. raisins (I used a combination of golden, crimson and regular)
1/2-3/4 c. buttermilk
1/2 piece 100% pure maple candy

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease baking sheet.
In a food processor, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Add in cut up butter and pulse just until crumbly. Add maple syrup and pulse 1-2 times to combine.
Pour mixture into a bowl. Stir in raisins. Slowly stir in buttermilk just until the dough comes together into a sticky ball (you may not use all of the buttermilk).
Break dough into 8 equal pieces and place on greased baking sheet.
Crumble a small piece of maple candy over the top of each piece of dough.
Bake at 400 degrees for 16-19 minutes until golden brown.

Looking for more maple inspired recipes? Check out:
The Coombs Family Farms recipe collection
Helen's Health Bread
Maple Dijon Salmon
Pumpkin Cheesecake

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rhubarb Crumble Quick Bread

I bet you didn't guess a quick bread from my list of teaser ingredients the other day - or at least, I wouldn't have! The buttermilk would've thrown me right off, but it's what keeps this quick bread nice and moist. And the streusely crumble topping is the icing on the cake, so to speak.

That sweet topping is also a nice compliment to the slight pop of the rhubarb, which somewhat surprisingly holds up pretty well during baking.

I've only ever made pies out of it, so I guess I was expecting it to turn to mush like it does in pies. But nope - as you can see, there are bright little chunks of soft, but not mushy, rhubarb throughout this bread. Here's the recipe:

Rhubarb Crumble Quick Bread
(Makes 1 10" loaf)

1 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. applesauce
1 egg
1 c. low-fat buttermilk
1 vanilla bean
2 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 c. chopped rhubarb

1/3 c. white sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. butter, chilled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10" loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, combine sugar, apple sauce and oil. Mix until well blended.
Cut vanilla bean in half and scrape contents into sugar mixture. Whisk throughout the mixture so the vanilla is evenly distributed.
Add in egg and buttermilk and mix well.
In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.
Add flour mixture to sugar mixture and mix until ingredients just come together.
Fold in rhubarb.
Pour into greased loaf pan.
To prepare the topping, mix together sugar and cinnamon. Cut in chilled butter until mixture is crumbly.
Pour the topping evenly over the bread mixture.
Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Let cool 10 minutes before turning out of pan. Let cool at least another 20 minutes before cutting.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Easthampton Farmer's Market - Fresh produce, finally found!

I mentioned last week that I was a bit disappointed when I went to the Holyoke Farmer's Market and essentially found only asparagus and flowers for sale. I decided to give it another try today by heading down to Union Square in Easthampton for the Easthampton Farmer's Market. As you can see, it was a much nicer day today for the farmer's market. Not a cloud in site. And while there were a lot of flowers to be had - there was also a great variety of herbs, homemade jams and goodies and even a few early veggies (namely greens, asparagus and rhubarb).

There were about 5 different farms there today and I ended up buying from 3 of them. First, I got some fresh chives from Ravenwold Greenhouses (out of Florence/Northampton, MA). They had an incredible selection of herbs like basil, sage, rosemary, dill, tarragon, chives, parsley and oregano. They all smelled wonderful, but I tried to hold back, knowing that I'd be getting a lot of those herbs from the CSA I joined.

Next I moved on to get some jam from Stony Creek Farm (out of Montgomery, MA). As you'll see from the picture below, they had numerous jams, sauces and jarred vegetables, along with cookies, pies and breads. The baked goods were tempting, but I had something else in mind to make at home (don't worry - I'll get to that soon enough), so I resisted. I did pick up a jar of their Bumbleberry Jam, which is a mix of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Yum!

Lastly I spied a basket full of rhubarb from Intervale Farms (out of Westhampton, MA). I'd been waiting with baited breath for rhubarb to come into season, so I snatched some right up and headed home with my little mind scheming.

For a bit, I was thinking of creating some strawberry rhubarb tarts, but then I decided I wanted to do something to showcase the rhubarb alone. While not something most people want to eat raw, when cooked with a bit of sugar added, rhubarb is pretty tasty all on its own - no other fruity flavors needed. So what did I do with it? Well, I'll tell you it involves buttermilk, vanilla bean and sugar. Have I piqued your interest? Come back tomorrow for the recipe!

In the meantime, if you're looking for a farm or farmer's market in your area, check out Local Harvest (for listings nationwide) or Farm Fresh (for listings in MA, CT and RI).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Valley's best pancakes - finally replicated at home!

I've mentioned before that my favorite place for pancakes in the Valley is The Stables in Hadley, MA. And while Mr. ValleyWriter and I are still enjoying our fair share of meals out, like everyone, we've cut back a bit. We used to go for a full breakfast every weekend, but now it's more like every few weeks. On the weekends in between, we're on our own for breakfast - but boxed pancake mix simply won't do!

So, I set about trying to replicate The Stable's yummy buttermilk pancakes. The first time I mixed milk and buttermilk and the results were good, but not quite buttermilky enough. The next time, I used all buttermilk, but for some reason, the batter came out way too thick and the pancakes ended up being a bit gummy. Yesterday I tried it again with a little less flour, but they came out flat and tough. So this morning I headed back to the kitchen to give it another go. I tweaked the leavening agents and the fat and voila! Perfect buttermilk pancakes!

These are tender and fluffy - perfect for soaking up maple syrup. They're tasty enough to eat without syrup, too, but not many can pass up that sweet liquid gold when it comes to pancakes. Here's how to make these restaurant-quality pancakes at a fraction of the restaurant-price:

Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes
(Makes about 6 4-inch pancakes)

1 1/4 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
3 Tbsp. oil
1 1/4 c. flour
2 Tbsp. sugar

In a medium bowl, combine buttermilk, baking powder and baking soda. Stir and let sit about 5 minutes until frothy. Add in egg and oil and beat with mixer on high for about 30 seconds. Add flour and sugar and beat until ingredients are just combined.
Let batter sit for 5 minutes.
Spray griddle with non-stick cooking spray or grease with butter. Heat griddle over medium-low heat.
Pour about 1/2 c. batter onto griddle for each pancake. Cook until bubbles start to pop all over the surface of the pancake, then flip and continue cooking until both sides are golden brown.
Top with butter or maple syrup (or both) and enjoy!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I woke up to a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning today, so I decided to get outside and do some overdue gardening. I planted a few plants my mom brought down last weekend, did some weeding and watering, and set about trying to identify exactly what had come up and what was still waiting to come up. That's when I spotted it. The mint. The glorious mint flourishing behind a small shrub.

Last year when we first moved in, our neighbors had a glut of mint, so they gave us a bunch. My mom, who also grows mint but has no idea how to use it, was over at the time, so we made her a mojito. So enjoyed it so much that she had 2 (I think that may be a first). The next time she visited, she brought us some mint from her garden to transplant to ours. (I think she's expecting more mojitos this year!)

So, needless to say, when I spied the mint in full bloom this morning, I knew what was going to be on the menu this afternoon.


I should note that the first time we made these, we didn't have any lime on hand so we made them without - and they turned out to be just as good. Limes aren't exactly a staple in our house and it's nice to be able to just throw together a cocktail with what we have on hand (in the liquor cabinet and/or garden, in this case), so we've created our own Minty Mojitos recipe - sans lime.

Minty Mojitos

4-5 mint leaves
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 shot of silver, spiced rum
1/3-1/2 c. club soda
a few ice cubes

Place mint leaves in the bottom of a scotch or collins glass (we don't have collins glasses - and I'm a lightweight - so I used a scotch glass). Top with sugar. Muddle mint and sugar together with a spoon until the mint is fragrant and broken into small pieces. Drop in a few ice cubes. Pour in rum and club soda. Stir and enjoy!

(If you have the lime on hand - add about 1 tsp. of lime juice and a slice of fresh lime in when you're muddling the mint and sugar for a traditional, less minty version.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My first farmer's market of the season

Mr. ValleyWriter and I bought a share in a local CSA farm this year, but as we wait for the first harvest - I'm itching for local produce. I had the day off today, so I decided to head down to the Holyoke Farmer's Market on High Street in Holyoke to see what they had to offer.

I'd never been to this farmer's market before, so I was pretty surprised when I got down there to find that they actually close down part of one of the busier streets in Holyoke (it's right in front of City Hall) for the market.

I thought it was a fairly decent turnout for a rainy day, but I'm sure it's much busier in the middle of summer. In the same vein, I knew not to expect too many vegetables, but I was a bit surprised to only see asparagus. I figured they might have had some nettles or early greens, but no such luck.

However, they did have tons and tons of flowers and vegetable seedlings. And on my way out, I was also lucky enough to stumble upon a table full of natural soaps.

The soaps were all made of only natural ingredients like goat's milk, essential oils and shea butter. I ended buying 2 bars - one hand deodorizing bar made with coffee grounds (great for getting onion/garlic smells off your hand) and one body bar made with almonds, cocoa, goat's milk and honey (it smells delish!).

So, I may have come away vegetable-less, but at least my skin will be soft and smell great :-) Oh well, I guess I'll just have to keep making the farmer's market rounds until the veggies really come into season. Fortunately, there's only about 3 more weeks until the CSA's first harvest!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Brunch was a success!

Our Mother's Day Brunch went off without a hitch. With Mr. ValleyWriter's input, I ended up coming up with the following menu:

Strawberry Spinach Salad
Antipasto salad
Egg salad finger rolls

I'm proud to say that I made nearly everything from scratch. I didn't make the noodles, meats or cheeses, but I did make all of the dressings, the crust for the quiche and even the finger rolls. This is a big step for the girl who, 5 years ago, thought nothing of serving boxed meals (remember those Betty Crocker Complete Meals®?) for dinner several nights a week.

I didn't come up with all of the recipes myself, though. The antipasto salad was a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis that I found on the Food Network site. In the past, I've made a similar salad, but just used bottled Italian dressing. This dressing the recipe was SO much better. The basil adds a wonderful freshness - I'll definitely be keeping this recipe in mind for summer BBQs. And the finger rolls were a bread machine recipe - essentially making a basic white bread and splitting the dough into 8 smaller pieces before baking.

I will claim the strawberry spinach salad as my own. The idea, of course, is not unique, but I played with different elements of the dressing to get it just so. I'm very pleased with the results - and everyone else seemed to enjoy it, too. Here's what I did:

Strawberry Spinach Salad

1 Tbsp. sesame seeds
1 Tbsp. poppy seeds
1/3 c. white sugar
1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
12 oz. baby spinach, washed
2 c. strawberries, hulled and sliced

In a small bowl, whisk together sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sugar, olive oil, vinegar, paprika and Worcestershire sauce.
In a large bowl, combine spinach and strawberries. Pour dressing over the top and toss to coat. Cover and chill about 45 minutes before serving.

On a side note, I was seriously considering making that pineapple upside down French toast from the round-up (it sounds delish!), but I thought our moms would appreciate these less sweet options more. We'll have to save that French toast for another day when it's all about me and my need for sweets!! :-)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mother's Day Brunch Round Up

I put out the call for some Mother's Day Brunch ideas and my fellow bloggers came through! I've been looking through the recipes trying to decide what to make - they all look yummy! I think the Curious Potato Quiche or the Roasted Red Pepper and Ricotta Frittata may have to be my egg dish. Maybe both! We shall see...

If you're planning a brunch this Sunday (don't forget - May 10 is Mother's Day!!), check out some of these creative and yummy ideas:

Pineapple Upside Down French Toast from Jan at Ozark Mountain Christmas Recipes

Curious Potato Quiche from Daily Spud.

Luscious Pineapple Squares, Grape Salad, and Spinach Meat Roll-ups from Martha at Stir, Laugh, Repeat.

Roasted Red Pepper and Ricotta Frittata from Cookography.

Thanks for sharing Jan, Daily Spud, Martha and Cookography! I hope everyone has a very Happy Mother's Day.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sunday Dinner - Homemade Gnocchi

As I've mentioned before, big Sunday dinners hold a special place in my heart. Childhood Sunday dinners always involved mountains of yummy food - and if I was lucky, potatoes of some kind. I am a potato-lover. Mr. ValleyWriter, not so much. Because of this, we rarely have potatoes. I just feel bad if I make something I know he won't want to eat.

But one day we were discussing this potato aversion and I found a potential ray of light. When I asked him what he thought of gnocchi, he said he'd be open to it. Yes! So last night, I finally got around to making it. And it was a success!
Covered in a tomato, pesto, basil and garlic sauce, it tastes quite similar to pasta. But I still know I'm getting my potatoes. I will definitely be making this again! I looked around at a bunch of gnocchi recipes and combined a couple, but mainly relied on Elise's recipe over at Simply Recipes. She has great pictures of the process, too.
Here's my version, with my sauce recipe -

Homemade Gnocchi with Pesto, Tomato, Basil and Garlic

For gnocchi -
3 large baking potatoes (about 2 lbs.)
1 egg
1 1/4-1 1/2 c. flour
1 pinch salt

For sauce:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 oz. can petite diced tomatoes
1/4 c. pesto
5-6 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scrub potatoes, poke liberally with a fork and bake for 1 hour until skin looks wrinkly and potatoes yield when squeezed.
Carefully cut potatoes in half and set aside until cool enough to handle.
Remove skin from potatoes and pass chunks of cooked potato through a potato ricer into a large bowl. (I used a garlic press because that was all I had).
Add egg and salt to potatoes and begin mixing in flour with your hands just until potato forms a ball you can easily handle. (You don't want it to be too sticky or moist or it will fall apart in cooking.)
Break ball into 4-5 pieces.
On floured surface, roll each piece of dough back and forth, pressing outward (not downward) to form a long log. Repeat with each piece of dough.
Cut rolled pieces into 1/2" to 3/4" pieces. Roll each piece over the tines of a fork to create grooves.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Drop the gnocchi in the boiling water in batches (about 15-20 at a time). When gnocchi rise to the surface, continue boiling about 1 more minute until removing with a slotted spoon. Keep each batch warm by placing in a bowl covered with foil.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant. Add tomatoes and pesto. Cover and let simmer until all of the gnocchi is cooked.
Add the fresh basil to the sauce and let cook 1-2 minutes.
Pour sauce over gnocchi and serve.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mother's Day Brunch Ideas

Next Sunday is Mother's Day and we've invited both of our moms over for a Mother's Day Brunch. I don't know about you, but whenever I'm having people over for a special meal, I start planning at least a week in advance. I'm not one of those "oh we'll just throw something together that morning" kind of gals. Nope, I'm a big time planner. So I've started scoping out my recipe books for ideas of things to make. Mr. ValleyWriter has suggested we have 2 breakfast type items and 2 lunch type items to make it an official "brunch." (I'm not sure where he came up with the ratio, but it sounds good to me!)

I was thinking of doing a fruit salad or a spinach salad with strawberries. Then maybe a quiche, though I'm not sure if that counts as a breakfast or lunch item. I also thought about maybe doing a ham - but that seems like it might be a lot for 6 people. Maybe Eggs Benedict instead? Hmm... I'll have to think that one through.

Of course, we have to have some kind of baked good, as that is the hallmark of a ValleyWriter get-together. (What can I say? I love to bake!) My mom makes the best scones, so I was thinking I might make a batch in her honor. I made a batch of yummy (and incredibly easy) cranberry raisin scone one morning this week to try out the flavors.

Cranberry Raisin Drop Scones

2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. white sugar
1/2 c. cold butter
1/3 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. raisins (I used a mix of golden, crimson and regular
1/2 to 3/4 c. milk
1 Tbsp. brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.
In the bowl of your food processor, combine flour, baking powder salt and white sugar. Pulse a few times to mix.
Cut the butter into a few chunks and add to the food processor. Pulse until the mixture is grainy, with the butter chunks smaller than the size of a small pea.
(If you don't have a food processor, you can just mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl and then cut in the butter with a fork.)
Pour the butter/flour mixture into a mixing bowl. Stir in the dried cranberries and raisins. Slowly add in the milk, just until the dough comes together into a sticky ball. (You may not need to use all of the milk.)
Scoop about 1/2 c. of the dough into a ball and place on the greased baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough to form 8 scones in total.
Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the tops of all of the balls of dough.
Bake for 15-17 minutes until tops are golden brown and toothpick inserted comes out clean.

I thought I'd share this recipe - and then ask you to share some of your great recipes for brunch ideas. If you leave me the link to your blog post in the comments - or contact me using the "Contact" feature on the left - I'll post all the recipes, along with a link to your blog, in a round up on Thursday evening. Just in time to start shopping for the Mother's Day Menu. Thanks!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Spicy Chicken Coconut Curry

So my recent trip "around the world" (via the zoo) had me wanting to try something totally different for dinner last night to continue our world travels. I decided on a spicy chicken coconut curry.

It's a hearty, spicy but sweet meal that really isn't too difficult to put together. The hardest thing is letting it simmer long enough; it smells so good, it's hard to wait!

Spicy Chicken Coconut Curry

2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. spicy curry paste
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 lb. chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 (14 oz.) can lite coconut milk
1 (14 oz.) can petite diced tomatoes (undrained)
1/2 c. tomato sauce
3 Tbsp. sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add curry paste and stir constantly for about 2 minutes. Add garlic and stir until fragrant. Add in chicken. Cook 7-9 minutes until chicken is fully cooked. Pour coconut milk, tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar over chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste (I used 2 pinches of salt and 3-4 grinds of fresh pepper). Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 hour until sauce is reduced and thickened. Serve over rice.