Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rise and Shine Muffins - Way Better than Bran!

As you've probably figured out by know, I'm a bit of a fiber freak. I generally try to eat at least 25 grams of fiber every day - so I'm always on the lookout for new high fiber foods and recipes to try. I found a recipe using sweet potatoes to make a quick bread and jazzed it up a notch with a few changes to make some yummy, high fiber muffins. Part of the "jazz" is the addition of prunes - but before you say "ick" - give them a try. Call them dried plums if it helps. (Really, they taste a lot like raisins - just juicier.) These will make a great new addition to my breakfast rotation, so I'm calling them Rise and Shine Muffins.



Ingredients
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 3/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/3 c. light vanilla soy milk
1 tsp. cider vinegar
1 c. brown sugar (lightly packed)
1/3 c. oil
2 eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla
8 dried plums (prunes), finely chopped


Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease muffin pans.

Wash sweet potatoes and wrap in damp paper towels. Microwave on high 5-6 minutes until sweet potatoes are soft when you press on them. Allow them to cool for a few minutes.

While sweet potatoes are cooling, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and cloves in a medium bowl.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together soy milk and vinegar.

Once sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and place the sweet potatoes in a bowl. (They should be pretty mushy. If not - cook them for another minute or two.) Beat the sweet potatoes on high until fairly smooth (like the consistency of butternut squash).

Beat in brown sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until well combined. Then beat in soy milk/vanilla mixture.

Stir in flour mixture by hand until well combined. Then fold in prunes (err.... plums).

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full with batter. Bake 20-25 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

West Lake Gourmet - Great "American" Chinese

Mr. ValleyWriter and I love Chinese food. Well, the Americanized version of it anyway. You know, fried goodies, beef teriyaki, floured chicken in a sticky, sweet sauce, etc. I know this is not "real" Chinese food (if it were, the Chinese would all be obese and dead by age 30), but it is a nice treat every once in a while. Unfortunately, since we moved to the Valley, we've had trouble finding good Chinese.

When we were living in Hatfield, we ordered from Hunan Gourmet in Northampton a few times. They were always voted "Best of the Valley" for Chinese - and the food was good - but then one day a story came out about someone finding a rat foot in their moo-shoo pork and Hunan Gourmet quickly went out of business.

Since then, we've tried 3-4 other places, but never went back anywhere. Until now. Last fall, our neighbors joined us in the quest for good Chinese. They'd had similar experiences to ours - and worse. Finally, we stumbled across West Lake Gourmet in Southampton. We had a great experience in the fall and the good results were just repeated last night (with leftovers again tonight).

West Lake Gourmet is a small restaurant tucked into the Red Rock Plaza shops (across from the Big Y). Both times we've ordered takeout, but since they don't deliver, I did get to go inside and check out the dining room. It's pretty small - only about 10 tables - but looks comfortable. They have a bar and, of course, an extensive menu.

For our impromtu dinner party with the neighbors last night, we got an order of General's Chicken, vegetable lo mein, chicken fingers and teriyaki beef. The total came to less than $40 - and it was a ton of food! 4 of us ate last night hearty dinners last night and Mr. ValleyWriter and I had dinner again tonight. But large portions aren't exactly uncommon in the Chinese food world. The proof is really in the taste. And West Lake delivers.


For appetizers, we started out with chicken fingers and teriyaki beef. The chicken fingers were heavily battered, but when you're going all out - you might as well go all out. The first night they were good, but when reheated, they seemed kind of greasy. (That may be a problem with all fried food, though. We don't really eat it enough to know.) The teriyaki beef was tender and flavorful. Next time, I'm going to vote for a bigger order of that.

For dinner, we moved on to the General's Chicken and vegetable lo mein. The chicken was cut into even chunks that were covered in a smooth batter and fried until nice and crispy. The sauce was the perfect balance between sweet and spicy - and I really enjoyed the red and green peppers they used (instead of the usual cold broccoli). The lo mein was chock full of vegetables - water chestnuts, baby corn, mushrooms, bean sprouts and onions. The flavor was very mild and there wasn't much sauce at all, which was a good compliment to the saucy General's chicken.

I can't ask for much more from good "American" Chinese. The real test will be if we eat at the restaurant and try their scorpion bowl. The scorpion bowl can make or break a restaurant for me! But, until further notice, I'm declaring West Lake Gourmet my "Best of the Valley" for Chinese. (Now I'm off to make up for my indulgence. I'll be riding the bike for - oh - a few hours (or maybe days?)!)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lazy, snowy Sunday

It's snowing - again.

I know this is New England, and while I've lived here my whole life, I can't help but continue to begrudge the snow come late February every year. The sad thing is, there's still a full official month of winter left - and it's not unheard of to have snow into early April. Alas, it's a good excuse to stay inside, cuddle up on the couch and chill out. That's exactly what the ValleyKitties are doing today:

(Piper & Zoe)

However, unlike the cats (and my husband), I can only do so much sitting around before I start to go stir crazy. So I decided to try out a new bread recipe. It came to me this morning when I was really craving French toast, but realized the only bread we had was multigrain and that just wouldn't do. I ended up going with oatmeal for breakfast, but couldn't get the idea of a yummy, sweet French toast bread out of my head. I decided to try to make a cinnamon swirl bread (almost like a cinnamon roll in bread form).

The results were delicious! I can't wait to try this out in French toast next weekend. (Or maybe we'll have to have breakfast for dinner one night this week... hmm.... not a bad idea at all.) I'll report back on how that works out. But even as just plain bread, this is yummy. Give it try!


Cinnamon Swirl Bread

Ingredients

Dough:
1 tsp. salt
1/2 c. warm water
1 Tbsp. milk
1/4 c. applesauce (or 1 egg)
1 Tbsp. oil
2 2/3 c. flour
1 1/2 Tbsp. white sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. yeast

Filling:
2 Tbsp. butter
1/3 c. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. cinnamon

Directions
Put dough ingredients into bread maker pan in the order listed. Set bread maker to dough cycle.
When dough cycle is up, remove dough from pan and place on well floured surface.
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter. Mix together brown sugar and cinnamon.
Punch down the dough and flatten out into a rectangle (about 12 inches long x 5 inches wide).
Spread the melted butter evenly on top of the dough. Sprinkle the brown sugar/cinnamon mixture evenly over the top of the butter.
Roll the dough up lengthwise.
Place the dough seam side down and tuck the ends of the dough underneath.
Put dough into a lightly greased 10" loaf pan, cover with a warm cloth and let rise 30 minutes until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake bread for 30 minutes until top is golden brown and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Let cool at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Peachy Cranberry Chicken

Last weekend, Mr. ValleyWriter and I opened up a jar of peach preserves from a local organic farm that we'd gotten for Christmas. The preserves were very good on the toast we were having, but they almost seemed too good for mere toast. It got me wondering how else I could use this sweet, juicy jar of goodness. I had an old recipe for cranberry chicken that used apple preserves, so I decided to swap in the peach preserves and add in some ginger - and whammo! We have a winner!


Here's my Peachy Cranberry Chicken:

Ingredients
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and flattened
salt & pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1" piece of fresh ginger root, chopped into small chunks
1/2 c. chicken broth
3 Tbsp. peach preserves
1/4 cup dried cranberries

Directions
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Add ginger and saute about 1 minute.

Add chicken breasts to pan. Cook about 6 minutes on each side until breasts are nicely browned.

Carefully add chicken broth to the pan and stir to scrape off any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let simmer 3-4 minutes until stock starts to reduce. (Your chicken should be fully cooked at this point - which may take longer if your breasts are larger or thicker. Let simmer longer, if needed.)

Add preserves and stir. Add cranberries and let simmer 1-2 more minutes to allow cranberries to plump up before serving.

I served this with rice pilaf and a veggie mix (carrots, green beans and zucchini). Yum!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Polenta Lasagna

I love lasagna, but traditional lasagna is fairly intensive for a weeknight meal. Polenta lasagna, however, is quick and easy. Using premade polenta and jarred sauce really helps speed things along. And ground turkey keeps it lower in fat than your average lasagna. It doesn't have ricotta cheese, but the creaminess of the polenta makes up for that. Yum!



Polenta Lasagna
(Serves 4)

Ingredients

1 18 oz. package (tube) polenta (I use a sundried tomato and garlic variety, but you can use plain or any other flavor you like)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
10 oz. ground turkey
1 26 oz. jar spaghetti sauce
spices to taste
1 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 c. shredded Parmesan cheese

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Spray 8 x 8 baking dish with cooking spray.
Cut polenta into 1/4-inch slices (about 18 rounds).
Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat.
Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds, just until fragrant.
Add green peppers and stir, cooking about 2 minutes.
Add ground turkey and cook 5-8 minutes until no longer pink.
Add spaghetti sauce and any spices desired (such as oregano, basil, crushed red pepper, etc.). Mix well, lower heat and simmer 5 minutes.
Place 1/2 of polenta rounds in the bottom of greased baking pan. Spread 1/2 of turkey/sauce mixture over polenta, then sprinkle with 1/2 of mozzarella. Repeat polenta, sauce and mozzarella cheese layers.
Bake at 425 for 15 minutes. Sprinkle on Parmesan cheese and bake another 5-8 minutes until all cheese is fully melted.
Let sit at least 5 minutes before serving.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A romantic evening @ the old train station

I bet you're wondering what that title is all about. No, Mr. ValleyWriter and I did not partake in any young love antics in a subway station. We actually went out to for our pre-Valentine's Day dinner on Thursday at Union Station, which is located in a restored train station in Northampton. We waited too long to make actual V-Day plans, so we couldn't get reservations anywhere. We figured we'd just end up ordering in, but then Mr. ValleyWriter surprised me by calling me up Thursday on my way home from work to ask me out on a date. It was super sweet and meant more to me than going out on the official day when that's what you're supposed to do.


When deciding where to go, I was thinking I wanted a place that felt cozy and intimate. Not one of the typical boisterous NoHo eateries. Eventually we decided on Union Station, a seafood and steakhouse. The 1 time we went there, we got to sit in little booths that looked like small train cars. There were even curtains to close yourself in. It was very romantic, so it seemed like a good choice.


This time, we didn't get seated in the train cars, but we did get seated right next to the roaring fireplace in the elegant dining room. The main dining room is actually a pretty impressive site. It's a 2-story room with 3/4 of the room open all the way to the wood paneled floor, a staircase in the center leading up to a horseshoe-shaped section with tables overlooking the main room, a horseshoe of the train car booth seating on the 1st floor around the stairs, exposed brick walls, real lamp posts scattered around the dining area - and even a train coming through the wall. (I think they may have gone a little OTT with that last bit, but the rest of the effect is really very nice.)


Once we were seated, our waitress took our drink order and came back with warm rolls and butter. We placed our order and went to the salad bar (which is included with every entree) while we waited for our appetizer. The salad bar had a good selection of leafy greens and other salad vegetables, toppings (pine nuts, croutons, etc.) and dressings, as well as some marinated salads and pasta salads. I just made myself a garden salad, but it was very fresh and tasty.


Soon our appetizer arrived. It was brie en croute (brie in puff pastry) topped with a raspberry sauce. Brie en croute is something I make myself, so I was a little critical of this. Instead of using a small round of brie (as I would), they used a wedge from a larger wheel, so the presentation wasn't as pretty as it could have been. I also thought the flavor was just a little bit off. The raspberry sauce didn't quite have enough acidity to help cut the creaminess of the brie. When I make it at home, I use a good helping of apricot preserves nestled in the center of the wheel of brie and Mr. ValleyWriter and I both agree we prefer it that way.


For dinner, Mr. ValleyWriter ordered the filet mignon with Bearnaise sauce and I had the bourbon chicken, which was double chicken breasts smothered in a bourbon sauce with red peppers, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Mr. ValleyWriter's filet was tender and expertly cooked. My chicken was juicy and tasty - and there was a ton of it. (I took home nearly 3/4 of my plate!) Both of us went with the mixed vegetables (zucchini and pea pods) for our side and neither of us were very impressed. I thought they were a bit overcooked with a bit too much butter. But, I guess the mixed vegetables are never really the star of the show.


For dessert, we shared the Toffee Kahlua Cake. It was a 2-layer chocolate cake with a toffee Kahlua cream layer in the middle and toffee whipped cream on top. The cake was nice and moist and the toffee flavor was great. I didn't get a whole lot of Kahlua flavor in the 2 bites I had, but the toffee more than made up for it.


One of the things I was most impressed with was the timing between our courses. Lately, I've felt like lunches have taken far too long and that we've been rushed at dinner. But Union Station was a pleasant surprise. We had about 20 minutes between our salads and the appetizer, dinner arrived about 15 minutes after we finished up our appetizer and dessert came 10-15 minutes after we finished dinner. It gave us time to relax, enjoy our wine, digest our meals and chat. The server checked in at the appropriate intervals, but didn't hurry us along in any way, which is just what we wanted. The fire in the background kept us nicely warmed and the quiet dining room was a refreshing change.


I really enjoyed our dinner out at Union Station, a little bit more for the ambiance and service than for the food, but those are very important parts of the experience for me, so overall, I'd give Union Station good marks. I'm glad we had our V-Day early and really got to enjoy each other, rather than be hurried along to clear up the table for the couple with the next reservation. Tonight, we're staying home. Whatever your plans - enjoy!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cranberry Orange Muffins

Today is the Friday before a long weekend & the day before Valentine's Day, so I wanted to bring a special little goodie to work to help celebrate. I figured most people will get their fill of chocolate this weekend, so I decided to go a little healthier. As you know by now, I'm obsessed with Craisins®, so I decided to use them to make cranberry orange muffins. I have a mini-cheesecake pan that also makes cute little mini-muffins, so I actually made baby muffins.



(I made a double batch to make sure I'd have enough - there were plenty! I put the ones for work on a red platter in honor of V-day.)

Cranberry Orange Mini-Muffins
(Makes 12-14 muffins)

Ingredients
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 c. plus 2 Tbsp. orange juice
  • 2 tsp. orange zest (grated orange peel)
  • 3 Tbsp. melted butter
  • 1 Tbsp. hot water
  • 1 1/4 c. Craisins®
Directions
In a small bowl, soak Craisins® in 1/2 c. of orange juice for about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and grease muffin pan or line with paper liners.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a separate bowl, combine egg, 2 Tbsp. orange juice, zest, butter and water. Drain orange juice from the Craisins® into this liquid mixture.
Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and beat until well combined. Batter will be very thick.
Fold in Craisins®.
Fill muffin cups about 2/3 full with batter.
Bake at 325 degrees for 17-19 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

The orange flavor deepens when you let these sit overnight. Just be sure to wrap them up tightly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Modern Girls Brown Bag Lunch

Emma over at Modern Girls Kitchen is doing a brown bag round-up this week. I make my own lunch every day, even though we have a cafeteria at work. It not only saves money, but also lets me control exactly what I'm eating. (No wondering exactly how many tablespoons of oil something was cooked in or whether they used canned or fresh vegetables.)

I have to admit that for about 2 years, I ate a frozen meal every week day for lunch. It helped me lose 70 pounds - but it really got old! Now that I've lost the weight, I also find my eating habits have changed. A lot of times I nibble throughout the day rather than sitting down to eat one larger meal. So for example, my lunch bag today contains a piece of fruit, a cup of Greek yogurt, a baked potato, a couple of tablespoons of low-fat cottage cheese and some leftover broccoli and carrots from last night. The fruit and yogurt get eaten at some random time during the day (whenever I'm hungry), and the potato, cottage cheese and leftover veggies make up my lunch.

What I do is cook the potato for 5 minutes on high in the microwave the night before. Then at lunch time, I cut the potato in half, heat it up for 1 minute, add the veggies and heat another 1-2 minutes, then finish it off with the cottage cheese. It's yummy, filling, low in fat in calories - and you get 2-3 servings of vegetables in one go.

Sometimes I also sub-out the regular potato and cottage cheese for a baked sweet potato. They are so moist and sweet, you really don't need butter or margarine, IMO. Other days I'll make a little extra dinner and portion off a bit of it for my lunch before serving dinner to myself and Mr. ValleyWriter. My theory is that if it fits in your work bag and can be eaten as-is or microwaved, it's fair-game for lunch. So go forth and brown-bag it, girls! (Just don't use a brown bag. Get a reusable lunch bag instead - better for the environment and all that...)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Peanut Butter Surprise Cookies

This weekend we're having a baby shower for one of my oldest and dearest friends. I'd offered to bring any kind of food she wanted and the report back was "cookies!" I think I became famous for my cookies last summer when I made a batch of bakery style chocolate chip cookies for a little get-together with my friends. Ever since then, I always get asked if I'm bringing cookies when I'm coming to visit :-)

In addition to the favorite chocolate chip cookies, I wanted to try to do a chocolate and peanut butter cookie, since I know my friend (who is having the baby) loves that combination. I searched around and tried a couple of recipes and I think I've found "the one." It's a modification of a King Arthur Flour recipe that they call "Magic Middles." My version is richer in both the chocolate and PB flavors (in my opinion). I'm calling them "Peanut Butter Surprise" cookies in part because my friend doesn't know I'm bringing these and in part because when you first look at the cookie, you think it's just a chocolate cookie, but take a bite and you'll get a special surprise!


(Corny, I know, but you have to admit it's also kind of sweet.)

I've come to think of these kind of as peanut butter cups for grown-ups. I don't know about you, but the candy peanut butter cups are way too sweet (and fake-tasting) for me. But these cookies hit just the right note.

Peanut Butter Surprise
(Makes 2 1/2 dozen)

Chocolate cookie ingredients:
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 c. white sugar (plus extra for rolling cookies in before baking)
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. salted butter
1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk

PB filling ingredients
3/4 c. all natural (no sugar added) peanut butter
1 c. confectioner's sugar

(Note: If you use regular peanut butter, cut the confectioner's sugar to 3/4 or even 1/2 c., depending on how sweet your PB is. I find the natural peanut butter gives a truer peanutty flavor and allows you to control the sweetness better.)

Directions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.

In a small bowl, beat together peanut butter and confectioner's sugar until it holds together. Roll into 30 evenly sized balls (about a teaspoon of filling each) and refrigerate.

In a medium-sized microwave safe bowl, heat butter for about 30 seconds to 1 minute until it starts to melt. Add chocolate chips and microwave another 30 seconds. Stir chips and butter until chips are fully melted. (If needed, you can put them back in the microwave for 10 seconds at a time, stirring in between, just until the chips melt. Don't overdo it!)

Add 1/2 c. white sugar and 1/2 c. brown sugar to butter/chocolate mixture and beat until well blended. Beat in vanilla, egg and egg yolk until creamy.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa and baking soda. Beat into the butter/sugar mixture.

The cookie dough will be very thick at this point, but it should hold together. If it's crumbly, beat in a teaspoon or two of milk to get it to hold together.

Remove the PB balls from the fridge.

Scoop out 1 Tablespoon of chocolate cookie dough and shape into a disk with your fingers.

Put a PB ball in the center and pinch the cookie dough around it, then roll the ball in your hands to seal it around the PB filling.

Roll the ball in sugar and place onto prepared cookie sheet.

Lightly oil the bottom of a drinking glass and press each ball down until it's about 1" across and 1/2" high.

Bake at 375 for 7-9 minutes, just until cookies start to crackle around the edges.
Cool completely before serving.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Weeknight Risotto

I love risotto - the heartiness, creaminess and flavors - but it's normally a pretty intense cooking experience, since it requires constant stirring for nearly 30 minutes. It's worth the work to me in the early summer when the Valley farm stands are ripe with fresh asparagus, but I usually reserve it for a weekend meal. On a weeknight, I'm usually doing 2 or 3 other things while making dinner, which risotto doesn't mix well with.

Even thought asparagus isn't in season right now (nor is much of anything in the Valley), I was craving risotto tonight and decided to see if I could come up with a more weeknight-friendly recipe. Turns out, with a few modifications, I produced a yummy, creamy risotto with about 1/5 the stirring. Yay!


So here's my recipe for "weeknight risotto" with chicken, ham and asparagus:
Ingredients
2 tsp. olive oil
1 (about 4 oz.) boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 cup arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock
1 (9 oz.) package frozen asparagus cuts
1 (8 oz.) ham steak, cut into small cubes
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil
1/3 c. shredded parmesan cheese


Directions
In a large saute pan, heat olive oil. Add chicken and cook 3-5 minutes until lightly browned. Add rice to pan and stir in 1/2 c. chicken stock. Bring to a simmer over low-medium heat and stir until stock is absorbed by rice. Stir in another 1/2 c. until absorbed by rice. Add 1 c. chicken stock, cover pan and let simmer 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, steam frozen asparagus cuts in the microwave for 2-3 minutes, just to take the chill off.
After rice has simmered for 8-10 minutes, add in asparagus, ham, basil and remaining chicken stock. Cover and simmer (no stirring!) another 8-10 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.
Stir in cheese and serve.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Little Taste of Italy in Boston

For Christmas, Mr. ValleyWriter planned a trip to Boston for us, with a stay at the Hyatt Regency and tickets to see the late show of Blue Man Group. He also said he wanted to take me to dinner in the North End (the "Little Italy" of Boston), but he left the restaurant choosing up to me. After a couple of weeks of reading some Bostoner blogs and online reviews, I decided to give Marco a try.

Marco is owned by Chef Marc Orfaly, who was a 2004 Food & Wine "Best New Chef" and who also owns Pigalle, a famous French restaurant in Boston's theater district. Marco is a small bistro restaurant with only about 10 tables and a small bar in a 2nd floor space that overlooks Hanover Street. The exposed brick walls and classic brownstone fireplace add to the cozy bistro feeling.

When we walked in, we were greeted right away and our coats were taken and checked. We were seated a table near the windows overlooking Hanover Street, but couldn't quite see down to the street below. If we go back to Marco, I'd make a point to ask for a window seat so we could do a little people watching :-)

We arrived right at the height of dinner service, so our server was busy and took some time to get to our table. When she did stop by, I was honestly very surprised to see her dressed in a "Marco" T-shirt and jeans. I got the impression from the reviews and the menu that Marco was a little nicer than jeans & a T-shirt, so I was a little concerned at this point as to what we were in for. But, as they say, you can't judge a book by its cover, so I put my concerns in the back of my head and decided to keep an open mind.

We started with a couple of glasses of wine and the house rosemary foccacia with olive oil. The foccacia was a little dry by itself, but that made it perfect for soaking up the light olive oil. We then moved on to the prosciutto and melon appetizer. The plate came with a beautiful thin sheet of prosciutto covering the botttom, topped with canteloupe, honeydew melon, and ricotta salada and parmigiano cheese slices. The melon was the perfect complement to the slightly salty prosciutto and parmigiano. And the ricotta salad was a nice creamy finish on the palate.

For dinner, Mr. ValleyWriter ordered the rigatoni with pork meatballs in a chunky tomato sauce. I had the riccioli with parmesan and chunky tomato sauce. Marco offers 1/2 size portions of all of their pastas, so we both ordered just the 1/2 size, knowing we wanted to leave room for some North End pastries for dessert. The food was incredible and the portions were just perfect. Mr. ValleyWriter's pork meatballs were juicy and well-spiced and the pasta sauce was fresh and balanced. My riccioli was smooth and thick, but not too dense. My sauce was the same as Mr. ValleyWriter's, again fresh and balanced.

We finished up with a couple of espressos before heading down Hanover Street to Mike's Pastry. With nearly 50 people packed into a small storefront, you knew walking up that this place had to be good. We muscled our way to the counter and tried to quickly choose from the seemingly endless array of cannolis, cheesecakes, Italian cookies, rum cakes and cream puffs. Mr. ValleyWriter chose a cannoli with chocolate chips and I opted for a slice of chocolate chip cheesecake. There was really no place left to sit and we figured we could use a few more minutes to digest dinner, so we got our desserts to-go and brought them back to the hotel room to have during our wait for showtime.

When we finally dove in, I was amazed at how light and creamy the chocolate chip cheesecake was. I guess I've gotten used to heavy, dense cheesecakes, but this was much lighter and incredible smooth. In addition to tiny chocolate chips scattered throughout the cheesecake, it was also topped with a rich, smooth chocoalte ganache. Mike's cannoli filling was equally light and smooth, with just the right amount of sweetness blended in.

All in all, I had an incredible Boston eating experience. My only suggestion - Marc Orfaly - change your servers' dress code. When I'm a little dressed up and enjoying an incredible meal in a cozy little bistro, having my server in a T and jeans with her hair in a careless pony is a bit of a mood-killer. It wouldn't put me off going to Marco again, but it would be nice....

Thanks for an incredible weekend Mr. ValleyWriter!