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

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

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

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

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)

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

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)

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

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

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

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?