Monday, March 30, 2009

Leaping Horse Cabernet - Makes Mouths (and Wallets) Happy

Mr. ValleyWriter and I enjoy a glass or two of wine every now and then. (OK, so maybe like every other day or so.) But lately, like every one else, we've been trying to save some cash by cutting back. So, we've been trying to use up what we have in the house before buying more. This means Mr. ValleyWriter's been enjoying Mai Tais and rum & diet Dr. Peppers, and I've been abstaining. It's been nice to save $30-40 a week - but there's only so much a girl can take.


Enter the cheap wine. Today was a blah Monday. The weather was dreary, the stock market took a nose dive and work was, well, work. By the time end of the work day - I was more than ready to put my feet up and have a glass of wine. I was strolling the local co-op when I stumbled upon a display for Leaping Horse wine - 3 bottles for $18. It sounded like a steal - but would it taste any good? I decided to push my luck and grab a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. For $6, I didn't have much to lose.




I had trouble getting the cork out with our new fangled wine opener, but Mr. ValleyWriter assures me that's just operator difficulty - nothing to do with the wine itself. Pouring the glass, I noticed the wine was a little lighter than I expected. I often favor Chiantis, which are a heartier wine. But this wine was smooth and refreshing - with slightly tart/fruity notes of raspberry. The back of the bottle says it goes well with beef, red sauce and chocolate - the hallmark of an inexpensive wine. (The expensive wines don't tell you what to pair them with - you're just supposed to know. Snob, snob, snob.) I thought it stood up fine all on its own. I also think it's a good red to transition into summer with, since it's a little lighter.


Get it while it's hot (and cheap)!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Taking a step back in time...

I would imagine most everyone has some kind of food that immediately takes them back to their childhood or to a certain place and time. I have a few food that do that to me, but so far, none so much as what I made last night for dinner. Maybe it's because I haven't had them in years - or maybe it's because some of the people I associate with this food aren't around - either way, it was amazing how just a few ingredients brought me back 15-20 years in just one bite.

So what is this amazing food? Something probably few people are familiar with - galumpkies (or Polish cabbage rolls).

I'm not Polish, but my great aunt married a Polish man and, being the good 1950s wife that she was, she learned to cook all of his favorite foods. She shared those foods with the family and soon, a tradition of galumpkies on nearly every holiday began. Others in the family took to making them at other times, too. I can remember my great grandmother making them once for dinner - but she burned the cabbage and the house smelled awful. Even with all the windows open, I was begging my mother to leave. Oh what I would give for another dinner with my Nana - even if it was burnt cabbage.

My great aunt is still with us, but is in ailing health, so we haven't had galumpkies at a family event in ages. A few weeks ago, I was discussing Easter plans with my mom and it dawned on me how wonderful it would be to bring that tradition back. So my mom dug up the old recipe, written on a scratch of paper in Grandma's hand. I can remember Grandma sitting at the table with those scratches of paper and crossword puzzles in front of her, smiling and smoking away, my Nana (her mother) seated to her right, my Grandpa seated at the other end of the table. They always sat in the same spots and the scene was like a comfortable blanket - wrapping me in warmth. Again, what I would give to sit at that table one more time.

I knew the galumpkies would bring us all back there - at least for a moment. But before I committed to cooking them for a crowd of 20 (or more), I wanted to make sure I could do at least a small batch with the same authenticity I remember. So I set about making them for dinner last night. It's a long process - but the results were worth it. With my first bite, I was taken back to Grandma's kitchen at Christmas, trying to get a galumpkie out of the foil pan when I was barely as tall as the stove the pan was sitting on.

Maybe galumpkies won't have quite the same awe for you as they do for me, but they're still a tasty treat, so I wanted to share. Here's the ages old family recipe:

Galumpkies (Polish cabbage rolls)

Ingredients:

1 lb. ground beef
1 c. cooked white rice
1 head cabbage
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 1/2 c. water
salt, pepper, garlic powder
1/2 link kielbasa

Directions:
Core cabbage and place in a stockpot full of water. Bring to a boil and cook 10-15 minutes until outer leaves of cabbage have started to soften. Peel off the outer leaves and place in a colander. Continue boiling the remaining cabbage, checking it every 5 minutes or so to see if you can peel off additional leaves. (I needed 9 large leaves for this batch. You would need more if you stuff less filling in each one.)
Once you have the desired number of leaves, you can discard any remaining cabbage (or use it for another boiled cabbage recipe).
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
In a small bowl, mix the tomato soup and water together. Spread a small amount (a couple of tablespoons) over the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish.
In a medium sized bowl, make the filling by combining the ground beef (raw) and rice. Add a few dashes each of salt, pepper and garlic powder.
Add up to 1/2 c. of the soup mixture to the beef and rice mixture to get it to hold together.
To stuff the cabbage rolls, cup one of the boiled leaves in your hand and spoon in about 1/4 c. of filling (the exact amount doesn't matter - you just want a generously stuffed leaf that you can still fold over on itself).
Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling and place seam-side down in a 9 x 13 casserole dish.
Repeat until all leaves are stuffed.
Cut kielbasa into slices and tuck between the cabbage rolls.
Pour the remaining tomato soup and water mixture over the top.
Cover with foil and bake at 300 degrees for 4 hours. (Alternatively, you can bake at 200 degrees for 8 hours - but I don't know anyone who wants the oven on for 8 hours!)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Helen's Health Bread

Almost every time I make bread, Mr. ValleyWriter says we should get the recipe for his great-grandmother's famous bread—officially titled "Helen's Health Bread." Unfortunately, the recipe was MIA for a couple of years. But after we bought Mr. ValleyWriter's dad a breadmaker for Christmas, the recipe found it's way out of it's dark hiding spot and we finally have a copy.

I've never actually made bread by hand before, always preferring the ease of the breadmaker. But the recipe for Helen's Health Bread came only with by-hand instructions. And those instructions were to make 3 loaves—more dough than my bread machine could probably handle. Since I've never adapted a regular recipe for the bread machine before—and I'd never even had this bread before to know what it should end up like—I was in totally uncharted territory.

Despite Mr. ValleyWriter's concerns about my RA - I set about making a batch of the bread by hand - kneading and all. (And more proof that my meds are really working - the kneading wasn't that bad!) I cut the recipe in half to make 1 large loaf (in a 10 inch loaf pan). It took a few hours from start to finish, but in the end, Mr. ValleyWriter declared the house smelled like Grandma's and the bread came out just as it should - a hearty, slightly sweet whole-grain bread.









I'm going to share the by-hand recipe for now and may post an update if/when I figure out how to adapt it for the bread machine. Please let me know if you have any tips or tricks to share!


Helen's Health Bread
(Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. boiling water
1/2 c. dry milk
1 1/2 Tbsp. shortening
1/2 Tbsp. salt
1 c. rolled oats
1/3 c. maple molasses (this can be made by boiling down approximately 1/2 c. maple syrup - or you can just use plain maple syrup)
1/2 Tbsp. active dry yeast, dissolved in 2 Tbsp. warm water sprinkled with 1/4 tsp. sugar
2 to 2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. toasted wheat germ


Directions:
Mix boiling water, dry milk, shortening, salt, oats and maple molasses together in a large bowl. Let cool until a drop of the mixture placed on the inside of your wrist feels neither hot nor cold. Stir in the dissolved yeast.
Beat in 1 c. white flour and all of the whole wheat flour and wheat germ.
Continue adding white flour until dough pulls away from the side of the bowl and is no longer sticky.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured bread board and knead for 10 minutes. (If you find the dough is still too sticky when you turn it out, you can knead in more white flour.)
Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel.
Let rise in a warm place until dough is doubled in size.
Pour the dough out onto a well-floured board again and knead for another 10 minutes.
Shape into a loaf and place in a greased loaf pan.
Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in size again.
Place in a cold oven, turn the heat on to 400 degrees and bake for 15 minutes. Then turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes.
Remove from pan immediately and allow to cool before cutting.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chicken Piccata

Tonight, Mr. ValleyWriter did the cooking in the ValleyWriter household (a wonderful treat) and made an amazing chicken piccata.


He didn't measure out ingredients, but it was so good, I wanted to share. I've watched him cook this a few times, so I have an idea of the amounts he uses, but keep in mind the amounts below are approximate. (The recipe serves 2.)

Ingredients:
2 chicken breasts (about 4-5 oz. each), pounded to about 1/2" thickness
sea salt
pepper
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. flour
3 Tbsp. olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. chicken broth
1 c. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. petite capers
1-2 tsp. parsley

Directions:
Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.
Sprinkle chicken breasts generously with salt and pepper. Coat with cornstarch, then with flour.
Place into the skillet and cook about 3 minutes on each side, just until lightly browned (the middle will be pink - that's OK).
Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
Add another Tbsp. of olive oil to the pan. Add garlic and saute about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add chicken broth, white wine and lemon. Bring to a boil and let cook 5 minutes.
Place chicken back into the pan, cover and cook 10 minutes on medium-high heat. (The sauce should start to reduce down. If it reduces too much - add a little more wine or broth and turn the heat down.)
Sprinkle capers and parsley over the chicken and cook another 3-4 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink the center.
Serve chicken with sauce poured over the top.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creamy Shrimp & Wild Rice Casserole

For those of you following along, Mr. ValleyWriter's weight loss competition has come to a rather quick end. Believe it or not, one of the other guys lost 20 pounds in like 2 weeks - no fair! He's continuing his weight loss efforts, but since the sense of urgency has passed, he's allowing a little carbs back into our lives. (Thank you!)

He specifically requested this shrimp casserole, so I made it for him tonight. It comes together quickly and is very tasty. While the rice does add carbs, it's still a pretty healthy dinner option. You get 4 out of the 5 food groups (veggies, grains, milk and meat) all in one dish - and it's fairly low-fat, too.

Creamy Shrimp & Wild Rice Casserole
(makes 4 servings)

Ingredients:
1 pkg. long grain & wild rice mix (the kind that comes with seasoning)
3 oz. neufchatel cheese (or cream cheese), softened
1 1/4 c. warm water
1 large red pepper, diced
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
3/4 lb. raw shrimp, deveined and shells fully removed

Directions:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a 2 quart casserole dish, mix together rice seasoning packet, neufchatel cheese and warm water. Stir in rice, red pepper and celery. Cover and bake for 30 minutes.
Stir in shrimp and cook another 15 minutes until shrimp are pink and cooked through.
Let cool 5-10 minutes before serving (it's really hot!).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a Fish Fry

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother is Irish, so St. Patrick's Day was always a celebrated holiday in our house growing up. My mother would often make a boiled dinner with corned beef - and then proceed to tell us how it wasn't really traditional Irish cuisine. Before the last century or so, beef was expensive in Ireland and therefore considered a delicacy. More common meats in the Irish diet included pork and lamb. The traditional Irish boiled dinner would have been made with bacon joints (salted pieces of pork) and cabbage. Irish-American immigrants were unable to find bacon joints in their new country, so they turned to corned beef, which was an inexpensive cut of meat and similar in taste.

Sometimes my mother would make a more traditional boiled dinner with salted and smoked ham, but to be honest, it was never quite as good as that corned beef. Nonetheless, to this day, I find myself avoiding corned beef on St. Patrick's Day - almost in deference to my traditional Irish roots. Tonight I decided to try out some classic Irish pub food - fish & chips! (I know it's thought of as English food - but the Irish eat it too!)

I used Alton Brown's recipe from the Food Network Web site. I used Smithwick's Irish Ale for the beer and haddock for the fish. It was my first time frying fish and it turned out delicious. I served it with malt vinegar (a must!) and, of course, bottles of Irish ale.


The St. Paddy's Day Fish Fry might just have to be a new tradition in the ValleyWriter household. Though I think next year I have to add some green - maybe a side salad or coleslaw - just so I don't feel so guilty. Or, maybe I'll just have another beer and forget about the fried-food guilt!

However you celebrate St. Patrick's Day - enjoy! Erin go bragh!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thai Lettuce Wraps

Mr. ValleyWriter and I really enjoy the Thai lettuce wrap appetizer that they serve at The Cheesecake Factory. Every time we have it, I say that we should make it at home for dinner some night - but I've never actually come through - until now. I roasted a chicken on Saturday and was trying to decide what to do with the leftovers. Last night, I poked around for some recipes and even found one that claimed to be the official Cheesecake Factory recipe, but they all seemed way more complicated than they needed to be (or at least, than I wanted to deal with on a weeknight).

I ended up browsing the Thai/Chinese section of my local natural foods store tonight and found some helpful aids to make the process a little easier. I know a lot of you out there hate this term, but I guess you could call this "semi-homemade" Thai lettuce wraps. It turned out so good, I wish I had more leftover chicken! (I might have to roast a chicken every weekend just to have this.) It was quite the feast to behold, as well:


Here's how I made my version of

Thai Lettuce Wraps

Ingredients:

1 head Boston lettuce
3-4 carrots, julienned
1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 1/2" pieces
1/3 c. rice wine vinegar
1/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. water
1 can bean sprouts
1 Tbsp. peanut oil
1 1/2 c. shredded roast chicken
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1" piece ginger root, minced
1 1/2 Tbsp. chili garlic paste
1/4 c. soy sauce
1 pkg. instant Thai rice noodle soup (I used ginger flavor)

For dipping (I used bottled versions of these sauces):
Duck sauce
Dumpling dipping sauce
Sweet chili garlic sauce

Directions:
Carefully peel leaves off lettuce, keeping as many whole leaves intact as possible. Wash and dry leaves, set aside.
In a microwave safe bowl, combine rice wine vinegar, sugar and water. Microwave on high for 2 minutes until sugar dissolves. Put vinegar mixture in freezer for 15-20 minutes to cool. Then put cucumber pieces into mixture and let marinate in refrigerator until ready to serve.
Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add ginger and saute 1-2 minutes. Add chili garlic paste, soy sauce and chicken.
In a saute pan, heat peanut oil over low heat. Add bean sprouts.
Cook both chicken and bean sprouts until heated through.
Meanwhile, cook Thai rice noodle soup as directed on package. Drain when done cooking
Assemble lettuce, carrots, cucumbers (drained from the marinade), bean sprouts and rice noodles on a large platter.
Put chicken and dipping sauces in separate bowls.
To eat, add chicken, cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts to lettuce leaf (like a taco). Dip in desired sauce(s) and enjoy!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maple Syrup from the Source

After a long, cold winter, maple sugaring season has finally arrived in the Pioneer Valley. Despite the early ice storm that devastated several Western MA communities, many farmers say the maple trees made it through and this will be another good year for sugaring.

As luck would have it, we just finished up our supply of maple syrup last weekend, so we decided to go to a local sugar shack to stock up and check out the operation. This morning we headed out to the North Hadley Sugar Shack on Rt. 47 in North Hadley. The North Hadley Sugar Shack not only gives tours of their maple syrup operation, they also serve breakfast Friday-Sunday and have a small petting farm for kids, so you can bet this is a popular destination. When we arrived, the parking lot was full and we had to drive a ways up the street that runs beside the farm to park on the side of the road. As soon as we got out of the car, we started to see signs of maple sugaring - old fashioned taps and buckets:

(Many large sugaring operations today use lines instead of taps and buckets. The lines are long plastic tubes connecting the taps from tree to tree to tree, so when you want to collect the sap, you just have to go to 1 place on the line and open it up. With taps and buckets, you have to individually empty each bucket into a larger vat.)

We had planned to eat breakfast at the sugar shack, but by the time we made it in to the restaurant from our parking spot, they said it would be at least a 90 minute wait. At that point, we were fairly hungry and desperately in need of our morning coffee, so we decided to just do the tour of the sugaring operation, pick up a new supply of maple syrup and grab some coffee (and breakfast) elsewhere, where the wait wouldn't be long.

As we set off around the side of the restaurant, we ran into the horse drawn carriage ride getting ready to leave on its first trip of the day:

The cart it was pulling was filled with happy children, excited to be going for a ride. (As I mentioned, we hadn't had coffee yet - and Mr. ValleyWriter can be a little grumpy pre-coffee - so I didn't dare ask him if I could go for a ride....)

We continued on into the sugaring room. Here they take the sap from the trees and boil it down into syrup. Today, boiling was in full swing in a wood-fired evaporator. We got to watch as the farmers boiled the sap, checking the consistency every so often to see the progress. The room was filled with steam, which is what the majority of the sap eventually turns into.

As you can see from the sign above, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce just 1 gallon of maple syrup. It's a very time and labor intensive process, which explains the higher price tag for real maple syrup vs. "pancake syrup." (But trust me, one taste of this liquid gold and you'll never go back to the fake stuff.)

They had a video set up explaining the sugaring process from start to finish, as well as samples of some freshly made Grade A syrup (the lightest syrup that's made at the start of the season). It was sweet and light and delicious, though I must admit I prefer the Grade B syrup that gets made at the end of the season. It's a darker, heartier syrup with more maple flavor. It's often recommended for cooking and baking (a general substitute for sugar in baking is 3/4 c. maple syrup plus 1/4 tsp. baking soda, minus 3 Tbsp. of liquid in the recipe). But I think it's also wonderful on pancakes, waffles, etc. The intense maple flavor just can't be beat.

On our way out, we also stopped by the little petting farm and said hello to some goats and a sheep eating their breakfast:


Then it was on our way to find our own breakfast. Next time, I'd like to try out the breakfast here, but I think our best bet would be to come right at 7am when they open (that might be a tough sell). If you're in the area - check it out. It's always neat to see where your food comes from - and the North Hadley Sugar Shack makes it a fun outing for all.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

We've got a new look baby!

Do not be alarmed - your valley blog has not been hijacked! I just decided to welcome Spring with a fun colorful face lift. Let me know what you think.
Love it? Hate it? Why?

In search of the perfect crumpet...

I am of Irish decent and have been lucky enough to travel to the UK several times. Each time, I've discovered all kinds of new treats - including the ever delicious crumpet. For those of you unfamiliar with these, they're almost like a cross between a pancake and an English muffin. Soft and slightly sweet, filled with tons of little nooks and crannies to hold butter or jam (or clotted cream, when in the UK). I found crumpets at our local grocery store one time and brought them home to introduce Mr. ValleyWriter to them. He was hooked and has been asking for them ever since, but I haven't been able to find any for months and months.


So, this morning I figured, I've got "skillz," I'll make my own crumpets! I scoured the Internet and ended adapting a recipe from The Barefoot Kitchen Witch. I tweaked her recipe slightly based on some other recipes I found that looked like they produced fatter crumpets (The Barefoot Kitchen Witch's crumpets look perfect in terms of nooks and crannies, but they're a little flat compared to what I'm used to.)


What I got was very tasty, but definitely closer to an English muffin than to a crumpet. I'm not sure exactly what went wrong, but they never really bubbled on the top. I'm wondering if maybe I needed a little more liquid, since it's been really dry in our house (and therefore our flour is dry). I know that sometimes happens with bread recipes I make in the winter...


Anyway - I'm still in search for the ultimate crumpet recipe. But for now, I have one darn good English muffin recipe. These beat any store bought English muffin hands down. And they're pretty easy. So, here's my recipe for


Homemade English Muffins



(Photo courtesy of Mr. ValleyWriter)

Ingredients:
1 c. milk
3/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. warm water
1/4 tsp. baking soda


Directions:
Heat milk for about 30-45 seconds in microwave until lukewarm. Pour 1/2 c. milk into a small bowl. Stir in sugar and sprinkle yeast over the top. Set aside for 5-10 minutes to allow yeast to activate.
Sift flour into a separate bowl. Add salt.
Once yeast mixture is frothy, add to flour mixture. Add remaining 1/2 c. milk and beat with whisk for 5 minutes.
Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place about 45 minutes or until dough has doubled.
Once dough has doubled, mix warm water and baking soda together in a small bowl until smooth. Add to dough and mix gently, incorporating air as you go.
Cover and let sit another 15-20 minutes or until dough has doubled again. (For me, it only took 15 minutes to redouble, but it may take longer.)
Grease a cast iron griddle with butter and heat over low to medium heat.
Grease crumpet rings (I used flower-shaped cookie cutters because that's all I could find) with butter and place on griddle. Allow rings to heat up for a couple of minutes.
Add 1-2 Tbsp. of dough to the middle of the rings, so they're filled about 1/2-3/4 of the way up the sides.
Cook for 7-8 minutes until some bubbles have popped on the top and dough is fully set. Flip and cook 1-2 minutes on the other side.
These are yummy fresh of the griddle (well, give them a couple of minutes to cool down!) or the next day. Just put them in a tightly closed container to store.


If you have the perfect crumpet recipe - or any thoughts about where I went wrong on the above recipe - please let me know!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My best turkey meatloaf yet!

We're on week 2 of the lower-carb diet and things are going well. I'm still trying to expand my food horizons, but decided to go back to an old comfort food tonight - meatloaf. I'm not big on red meat and I haven't had much success with ground turkey for meatloaf before (it always seems to turn out bland and mushy), but I decided to give it another try. I'm glad I did - this one turned out great.




I think the secret was the beef and onion soup mix - it added great flavor. I had part of a green pepper and a few lonely baby carrots in the fridge, so I threw those in, too. You could use whatever veggies you like (or none at all).

Here's the full recipe:

Tasty Turkey Meatloaf

Ingredients:
1 1/4 lb. ground turkey (93% lean)
1 egg
2-3 Tbsp. ketchup
1-2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 Tbsp. bread crumbs
1 envelope dry beef & onion soup mix
1/4 c. chopped green onion
1/4 c. grated carrots

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix all ingredients with your hands until well blended.
Shape turkey mixture into a loaf in a 9" loaf pan.
Bake 55-60 minutes until turkey is cooked through.
Let sit 5 minutes before cutting (this keeps it from falling apart).

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tavern on the Hill - Good Food, Great View!

On Saturday, Mr. ValleyWriter and I went out to dinner with his parents. They came down our way before heading out to the airport on vacation (lucky ducks!). Since they had an early flight, we decided to go someplace easy & close by. Tavern on the Hill on the top of Mountain Road in Easthampton fit the bill perfectly. For a little history - the Tavern was opened in 2005 by the (former) head chefs of the Del Raye and Spoleto's in Northampton. If you've dined at either of those places, you know those are pretty impressive chops.

We made reservations for 5:30pm and were seated right upon our arrival. We lucked out and got a table next to the wall of windows that overlook Easthampton and Southampton - probably all the way to some of the hill towns. We'd been to the Tavern once before, in the summer, and we got to sit out on the deck and watch the sunset as we dined. Saturday was a bit cloudy, so there wasn't much of a sunset, but it was still nice to look out at the hills and mountains.

Our server promptly came over and took our drink order while we perused the menu. They have a good wine list and an extensive cocktail menu. (In the summer, they even have a 2nd bar out on the deck - very nice!) I went with a glass of Cabernet and chose the Fresh Herbed Crepe for dinner. All of the dinner entrees come with bread and salad, so we decided to skip any appetizers.

The bread came out right away and it was fresh and warm - just out of the oven. It was a wonderful hearty whole grain bread. On one hand, I'm glad they only gave us a small loaf so I didn't spoil my dinner - on the other hand, I wanted more! The salads arrived a short time later. They were a nice blend of leafy greens, green peppers, cucumbers, onions and croutons. I had the homemade Gorgonzola ranch dressing - delicious!

Shortly after our salads arrived - around 6pm - the noise level in the dining room really started to climb and we noticed that the tables around us had suddenly all filled in. The place was packed - and there were people waiting at the door - always a good sign for a restaurant, if you ask me. Somewhat unfortunately for us, the surge in patrons lead to a fairly long wait time between the salad and entree (about 40-45 minutes). But the company was nice and when our entrees did come, they were well worth the wait!

All of our dishes were expertly plated. My herbed crepe came with sprigs of chive and a balsamic reduction drizzled over the top of goat cheese and tomato sauce:


The crepe was nice and thin, yet sturdy enough to hold all of the wonderfully seasoned vegetables inside. The asparagus, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and onion were complemented well by the slight bite of the goat cheese and balsamic reduction. My dining companions also enjoyed their meals. (I got a taste of Mr. ValleyWriter's pasta jambalaya - it was very tasty and you can definitely see the Spoleto-influence there.)

The crepe was light enough (for me anyway) that I was able to finish it - and still have room for dessert. The dessert menu features several enticing options, a few of which feature locally made Mt. Tom's ice cream. I was having a chocolate craving, so I went with the brownie sundae. A warm, walnut-topped brownie came out with a generous scoop of Mt. Tom's vanilla and whipped cream. It was tasty - but not as impressive as the entree. Mt. Tom's ice cream was very rich and creamy (as always) but the brownie could very well have come from a box. Next time, I might try the chocolate mousse. That was always good at Spoleto's - so maybe the recipe came with the chef...

All in all, we had a very nice dining experience - good food, great view - and great company. We will definitely be going back - probably to try their Sunset Menu. Three courses for $20 - only available Sunday-Thursday. Maybe we'll see you there!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Baileys Mini Cheesecakes

Tomorrow is my dad's birthday and I've been charged with making dessert. We already had an official birthday cake at a family party a couple of weeks ago, so I wanted to do something different. As I was thinking about what my dad would like, I recalled a great memory I have of our wedding. The night before, we all went out to an Irish pub for dinner. We had Bailey's shots at the end of dinner and I joked that I might need a few more before the wedding the next day. Fast forward to the next afternoon - my daddy showed up at my hotel room bearing a full bottle of Bailey's! :-) We all had Baileys® on the rocks before heading out to the wedding.

It's one of my favorite memories of my dad, so I decided to channel it into his birthday dessert by making mini cheesecakes with Baileys.



(I went mini because he's not always big on dessert - but when it's a 2 bite dessert, who can resist?! To make a full cheesecake, the recipe and bake time can be tripled.)


Baileys Mini Cheesecakes
Ingredients
2/3 c. chocolate graham crackers, crushed
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/3 c. white sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1/4 c. Bailey's (or other Irish cream liquor)
1/4 c. chocolate chips, roughly chopped (or mini chocolate chips)

Directions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease mini cheesecake pan. (You can also use a mini muffin pan with cupcake liners.)
For the crust, mix together graham crackers and butter. Press an equal amount (about 1 Tbsp.) into the bottom of each of the cheesecake cups.
For the filling, beat together cream cheese and sugar until creamy. Add whole egg and beat. Add egg white and beat. Stir in Baileys. Fold in about 1/2 of the chocolate chips.
Pour filling over crust until cups are about 2/3 full.
Sprinkle remaining chocolate chips evenly over the tops.
Bake 14 minutes until centers are set.
Let cool at least 20 minutes before removing from cheesecake pan. Chill 4 hours or overnight.

I'm planning on serving these with a little whipped cream on top - yum!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Starting the weekend off in style

I arrived home tonight to find the porch littered with packages. Package #1 - a birthday gift for my dad (thank goodness it arrived - his birthday is Sunday!). Package #2 - a month's supply of Enbrel (the one "good" thing about RA is that they actually ship the meds to you instead of you having to go to the store...). And package #3 - my Flirty Apron that I won from the Foodie Blogroll!!




It totally made my Monday when I found out I won the apron giveaway and receiving my Chic Pink apron today totally made my Friday. I immediately put it on and got to making dinner. Mr. ValleyWriter came home and was very impressed with the "flirty" look (OK - that's not the term he used, but this is a PG web site). I can't wait to cook up a storm in my new duds. Anyone out there who's looking for a great gift for the foodie in their life - these Flirty Aprons are a sure bet!


The Foodie Blog Roll Contests: Winner!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's Fiesta Time!

Break out your sombreros! Mr. ValleyWriter's lost over 3 pounds already - time for a fiesta!!! Well, at least a fiesta salad. That's what was on the lower-carb menu tonight. It turned out to be so tasty, we didn't even need salad dressing (though I had some reduced fat ranch dressing on hand, if necessary). Not only was it good, it was really quick to put together. Plus, there's leftovers, which means an easy lunch for tomorrow. Can't beat that!
Fiesta Salad

Ingredients:
1 head romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
1 (4-5 oz.) boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 (10 oz.) can Mexican style corn, drained
1 (14 oz.) can black beans, drained
1 pkg. fajita seasoning
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. salsa
jalapeno slices, for garnish

Directions:
Cut chicken into 1/4" wide strips. Place into nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook until no longer pink on the outside. Add corn and black beans. Cook 3-5 minutes until heated through and chicken is no longer pink on the inside.
Mix fajita seasoning in 1/2 c. water. Pour over chicken, corn & beans. Stir until sauce thickens, then remove from heat. Stir in salsa.
Place lettuce in individual plates or bowls. Top with desired amount of chicken/bean mixture.
Garnish with jalapeno slices (if desired).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Crustless Spinach, Bacon & Feta Quiche

It's day 4 of the lower carb experiment and, miraculously, I'm still alive. OK - so I may be exaggerating just a wee bit. I'm still eating plenty of carbs throughout the day, just going lower carb than usual at dinner. And I have to admit, it's actually been kind of fun to try out some new recipes (and dust off some old ones).

Tonight I made my first crustless quiche. To avoid going overboard on fat content, I swapped out some of the eggs for egg substitute and used 1% milk instead of the usual cream. It turned out super yummy. This might be my new quiche recipe regardless of carb concerns. I think the key was layering the fillings on the bottom first. It helped create a faux-crust to help the eggs hold together.


Crustless Spinach, Bacon & Feta Quiche

Ingredients:
1 slices center cut bacon
6 oz. fresh baby spinach
1 c. crumbled feta cheese
2 eggs
1/2 c. egg substitute
1 c. milk
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. paprika

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray bottom and sides of 9-inch pie pan with cooking spray.
Cook bacon in a nonstick skillet until crisp.
Remove bacon from skillet and set on paper towels to drain. Leave bacon drippings in the skillet. Add spinach leaves to the skillet and cook 2-3 minutes until wilted, stirring frequently.
Remove spinach from heat. Crumble bacon into the spinach.
Cover the bottom of the pie pan evenly with the bacon and spinach mixture.
Sprinkle feta over the top.
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, egg substitute, milk and spices.
Pour over feta layer.
Bake for 30-35 minutes or until center is set and knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Garlic White Wine Haddock & Roasted Asparagus

Mr. ValleyWriter has entered a pool with the guys at work to see who can lose 20 pounds first. Being the supportive wife that I am, asked Mr. ValleyWriter if that meant he wanted to make any changes in the type of food we eat. His reply? "Less carbs." Darn. I love my carbs. Pasta, rice, polenta, potatoes, bread - I want it all! But, I guess I can have that for breakfast & lunch and go lower-carb for dinner.


We began this little experiment last night. I found some nice haddock and fresh asparagus at the store and we had 1/2 a bottle of white wine to use up (there's no alcohol on Mr. ValleyWriter's new diet either), so I came up with a garlic white wine sauce for the fish and roasted the asparagus in olive oil and salt and pepper.


It turned out even better than I expected. I normally smother white fish in tartar sauce, but this garlic white wine sauce was wonderful all on its own. I bet it would be good on some other white fishes, too, like cod or tilapia. The asparagus came out just right - and it cooked right along with the fish, making this super easy. This dinner will definitely be making it into the regular rotation. Here's how I made it:


Garlic White Wine Haddock & Roasted Asparagus

Ingredients

For the fish:
2 haddock fillets (about 6 oz. each)
salt, pepper
1/3 c. flour
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. chives
1 tsp. parsley
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. dry white wine (I used a Chardonnay)


For the asparagus:
approx. 1 lb. asparagus
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper


Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

To prepare the fish:
Sprinkle fillets with salt and pepper. Coat in flour.

Place in 9 x 13 baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Sprinkle with garlic, chives and parsley.

Cut butter into small chunks and place evenly over fillets.

Pour white wine over everything.


To prepare the asparagus:
Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Rinse asparagus and snap the dry ends off.

Spread out on the cookie sheet in a single layer.

Drizzle with olive oil and roll asparagus to coat.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roll asparagus again to coat.


Put the asparagus in the oven on the top rack (set as high as it can go).

Put the fish in the oven on a middle rack.


Bake both for 14-15 minutes, turning asparagus 1/2 way through, until fish is flaky and asparagus is tender.