Thursday, April 30, 2009

Touring the World... Without Leaving the State

Yesterday, Mr. ValleyWriter and I took advantage of the beautiful Spring weather to take a little day trip. At first, we weren't sure exactly what we wanted to do, but we knew we had to be back by night time and that we wanted to be outside. After some Googling, we decided to go to Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, MA. It's about 1 1/2 hours southeast of the Valley (and 1 hour southwest of Boston), so it was an easy day trip.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, seeing that New England isn't really known for its zoos. (In general, it's just too darn cold here for most exotic animals.) But on the road in, I caught a glimpse of an elephant and some camels and instantly got excited. It turned out we'd picked the perfect day to go - it had cooled off enough to be comfortable walking around and there weren't too many people there. We paid our entry fee (a steal, in my opinion, at about $16/each with our AAA card) and then spent 2 1/2 hours roaming around, checking out everything from Bengal tigers to giraffes to zebras.























(As you can see, the lions were having a nice afternoon nap...)

I guess I'm just a big kid at heart because I had a great time at the zoo. I'd definitely recommend it as an easy day trip from the Valley - or most anywhere in New England. And it's probably the closest to a trip around the world most of us will get anytime soon ;-)

Monday, April 27, 2009

This is the good life...

Another gorgeous day here in the valley. I'm lucky enough to be off work all week this week, so I'm very much enjoying this lovely surprise heat wave Mother Nature has sent us. Today we bought a bird bath for our garden and I planted my annuals out back on our deck. Actually, as I write this right now - I'm happily rocking away on the front porch, watching the sun set. Ahhh... this IS the life!

Given the hot weather, I'm not very interested in spending time in front of my stove - or anywhere else inside, for that matter. The grill is definitely my friend this week. Tonight I made pizza on the grill. It may sound odd - and you may be nervous at first about the dough falling through the grills - but I swear it works like a charm! I made a margarita pizza with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, so I'm also entering this recipe in this month's Royal Foodie Joust.

I've always been a bit too intimidated by the ingredients list to join the joust... or at least worried that Mr. ValleyWriter wouldn't eat whatever I'd made. For example, I think the edible flowers from a couple of months ago would've made him run in the other direction. But this month's only requirements were colors - red, white and green. This pizza fits the bill perfectly and is something we can both enjoy. So, without further ado:

Grilled Margarita Pizza

(Note: I make my dough using a bread machine. You can substitute your favorite dough recipe - or use premade dough from the store.)

Dough Ingredients:
3/4 c. warm water
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/4 flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp yeast

Toppings:
1/2 c. pizza sauce
8-10 medium-sized basil leaves
1 ripe tomato
8 oz. part skim mozzarella cheese (whole - not shredded)

To make pizza:
Place dough ingredients in your bread machine pan in the order listed (or as directed by the manufacturer). Set to dough cycle.
When dough finishes, pour out onto a well floured surface. Mix in a little flour just until dough is no longer sticky. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you get the toppings ready.
Wash and dry basil leaves. Cut tomato into 1/4" slices and remove any large pockets of seeds (which can make the pizza watery). Cut mozzarella into 1/8"-1/4" slices.



Spray the grill generously with nonstick spray. Start it up, set to medium heat and close the cover. Let the grill heat about 3-4 minutes.
In the meantime, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Sprinkle a medium-sized cookie sheet with a little flour and place dough in the center. Spread dough out along the bottom of the cookie sheet until it is about 8-9" wide x 13-14" long.
Turn the grill down to medium-low heat. Invert the cookie sheet with the dough onto the grill. Let it sit about 1-2 minutes to make sure the dough releases, then pull off the cookie sheet using tongs or pot holders. (The pan will be HOT - don't touch it with your bare hands. Take it from someone who found out the hard way....)
Close the cover and let the dough cook about 5 minutes.
Spread sauce on top of dough. Layer basil, tomato slices and mozzarella slices on top. Close the cover and let cook another 15 minutes until dough is cooked and cheese is melted.
Remove from the grill and let cool about 10 minutes before serving.




This goes great with a nice, refreshing pale ale. Enjoy & wish me luck in the joust! If you're a member of the Foodie Blogroll - don't forget to vote for your favorite Foodie Joust entry starting May 1st.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A taste of summer

Today was an incredibly gorgeous day here in the Valley. It was unseasonably warm, which is quite fine with me! We actually broke a new high temperature record, reaching 91 degrees according to the weather folks.

The wonderful weather had us outside working on the house most of the day. We discovered this little guy (or girl) enjoying the tall grass under our backyard waterspout:


And the ValleyKitties (who are normally indoor cats) even got out for a bit of a (highly supervised) stroll tonight:

Don't worry - the bunny remained safe!

So what better way to end a hot summer day than with a barbeque! Mr. ValleyWriter cooked up some tender, yummy smoked ribs that I wanted to share. I'd never smoked anything before, but after he showed me how - I was surprised to see how easy it was. If you have some wood chips (available at discount department and home improvement stores) and a grill - you can do this.
Here's how:

Ingredients

1 c. wood chips (we used hickory)
3-4 c. water
1 lb. country pork ribs
1/2 c. barbeque sauce

Directions

Put wood chips in a medium-sized bowl. Cover with water and soak for at least 30 minutes.
Drain wood chips and wrap in aluminum foil, leaving a 2-3" hole at the top of the aluminum foil packet (to allow smoke to escape).
Place wood chip packet on 1 side of the grill. If you have a gas grill, turn only the burner underneath that side of the grill on. Turn it to high heat, close the grill and let sit about 30 minutes until wood chips start to smoke.
Once chips start to smoke, place ribs on the opposite side of the grill, bone-side down. Turn the heat down to medium. Cook for about 25 minutes. Then flip ribs so they are meat-side down. Continue cooking 20-30 minutes until ribs are fully cooked (we cooked them to 160 degrees).
Remove ribs from grill, coat both sides with barbeque sauce and return to grill for 5more minutes.
That's really all there is to smoky, juicy, tender, flavorful ribs. Serve with a side of coleslaw and extra napkins, and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our First Anniversary!

Mr. ValleyWriter and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary yesterday (April 20). We were married at sunset on the beach in Key West - the most romantic experience of my life (so far!). Since we only had our parents there with us, we had a reception for our families when we got back home. Luck for us - this meant 2 wedding cakes!

The first was a small cake that we shared with our parents following our ceremony. It was an incredibly moist white cake filled with raspberry buttercream and fresh raspberries, covered with a deliciously decadent white chocolate ganache. As you can see - I couldn't wait to cut into it!

Since we were over 1000 miles from home, it wasn't realistic to save that cake for our anniversary. (In fact - we ate it for breakfast the next morning!)

So, lucky us then, that we had another chance with our second cake that we had at our reception. This was a tradition 3 tiered cake with several different layers - marble cake with vanilla pudding, vanilla cake with strawberry preserves and lemon cake with raspberry preserves. All were covered in classic buttercream and decorated with fresh orchids.

We saved the top layer - white cake with strawberry filling - to have on our first anniversary. I dutifully wrapped the cake in layers of cling wrap and foil, managed its move to our new house in the middle of July and protected it from any midnight cake cravings. But to be honest, I was a little worried about whether it was taste any good an entire year later.

So last night, after a wonderful, romantic dinner date, Mr. ValleyWriter and I unveiled the cake. Much to my surprise, it survived the year in pretty good condition - the frosting was nearly perfect!

But how about taste? It was great! The cake was still moist, the filling was perfectly intact and the flavors were surprisingly fresh.

So to the naysayers who said there was no point in saving the top - take that! And for the brides-to-be out there, here's how I kept our cake in great shape:

Step 1: Remove all non-edible decorations (flowers, toppers, etc.)

Step 2: Place cake uncovered in the freezer for 1-2 hours to help set the buttercream.

Step 3: Remove cake from freezer and wrap in a layer of plastic wrap. Press the plastic wrap to the sides of the cake to help remove any air. Repeat 4-5 times with crisscrossing layers of plastic wrap.

Step 4: Cover plastic-wrapped cake in 3 layers of aluminum foil. Again, press the foil toward the sides of the cake to help keep air out.

Step 5: Place wrapped cake in a cake box (to protect it from things falling on it in the freezer) and place in the freezer (kept at 0 degrees).

Step 6: The day before your anniversary, place the cake in the refrigerator to thaw.

Step 7: On your anniversary, unwrap and enjoy!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pork Chow Mein - Without the Takeout Box

One of Mr. ValleyWriter's favorite Chinese foods is pork chow mein. Every time we get Chinese food, an order of it is a must. Like most everyone these days, we're trying to cut back on things like eating out, so I decided to make this Chinese treat on my own.

I found a simple recipe over at A Year of CrockPotting (I love the ease of the crockpot!). I made a few changes to suit our tastes and what we're used to having in chow mein. (Specifically, the chow mein we usually get is just celery, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, meat and crunchy noodles. The original crockpotting recipe has more veggies and suggests serving over pasta.)

Check out the link above for the original recipe or give my modified version a try. Either way, I'm sure you'll be pleased.

Crockpot Pork Chow Mein

Ingredients:

1 lb. pork (I used sirloin cutlets)
8 oz. celery hearts, julienned
2 c. water
8 oz. bamboo shoots
2 c. fresh mung beans
1/4 c. cornstarch
1/4 c. low-sodium soy sauce
3 Tbsp. molasses
Crispy chow mein noodles

Directions:
Place pork and julienned celery into the crockpot. Pour 2 c. water over the top, cover and set to low for 6-7 hours.
After pork has cooked, pull it apart into small pieces with forks.
Add bamboo shoots and mung beans to the crockpot.
In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch and soy sauce until cornstarch is fully dissolved. Add in molasses and mix well.
Pour sauce over the top of meat and vegetables in crockpot, cover and cook on high for 1 hour.
Top with crispy chow mein noodles to serve.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Warm Weather Delights!

We have had a few beautiful days here in the Valley. My crocuses are still blooming, some daffodils are unfurling and the tulips are edging up from the ground ever higher. I've also gotten out for a couple of runs - now officially sanctioned by my doctor (yay!). While I've only run a few times, I've already noticed my appetite growing.

As I'm sure you've figured out by now, I definitely have a sweet tooth. But lately I've started to worry about eating too much sugar. Especially now that I'm expecting my body to perform again as a runner. So, I did some reading and found that agave syrup is a good sugar substitute with a lower glycemic index rating, so it takes the body longer to process (read: less sugar highs/lows). It's also minimally processed, so it's a bit healthier than regular granulated sugar.

My first venture with the agave syrup was a strawberry pie. I was a little nervous because I've had some sugar substitute disasters in the past. But I was quite happy with the result. I thought the pie was just sweet enough to satisfy my sweet tooth and still be refreshing - perfect for a warm Spring or Summer day.


Strawberry Pie
Ingredients:
6 gingersnap cookies
3 graham crackers
3 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 lb. fresh strawberries, hulled and divided
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 c. water
1/3 c. agave syrup

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Crush gingersnaps and graham crackers into fine crumbs using a food processor. Add butter and pulse to combine.
Press crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9" pie pan.
Bake 10 minutes to set.
Meanwhile, mash up 1 lb. of the strawberries.
Place in a small saucepan, add water and bring to a boil.
Stir in cornstarch and agave and boil 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly to break up any clumps of cornstarch.
Remove from heat and let cool 15-20 minutes.
Halve remaining strawberries and place on top of the pre-baked pie crust.
Pour strawberry/agave mixture over the top.
Chill at least 4 hours before serving.
Top with whipped cream, if desired.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spicy Stuffed Peppers

This recipe isn't as quick as some of my other weeknight recipes, but it's worth the extra work. I made some substitutions to make these a little healthier than many traditional recipes, but the changes don't compromise taste. And I love that everything comes in one neat little package at the end:

Spicy Stuffed Peppers
(Makes 2 large peppers or 4 small)

Ingredients:
2 large green peppers (or 4 small)
3 links sweet Italian turkey sausage
1 c. cooked rice
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1/4 c. 2% sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut the tops off green peppers and remove seeds. Submerge the green peppers in the boiling water. Cook for 10-15 minutes until peppers start to soften.
Meanwhile, remove casings from sausage. Saute over medium heat until no longer pink. Stir in rice and diced tomatoes (don't drain the tomatoes!).
When peppers are soft, remove them from the water and drain.
Stand peppers up in a lightly greased baking dish (a loaf pan works well).
Fill each pepper with half of sausage/rice mixture.
Top each with 1/2 of the shredded cheese.
Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until cheese is melted and starting to brown.
Enjoy!

Monday, April 13, 2009

I planted something - and it grew!

That's right folks, ValleyWriter turned a bulb into a flower - all by herself! OK - I realize this isn't that big of a deal for most people, but for me, it is. I don't have a good track record with most plants - other than zucchini (which basically grows itself) and philodendron (which I think is virtually impossible to kill). But when we moved into our house last year (the first house either of us have owned), I decided plantings had to be done.

So last fall, I picked up a bunch of bulbs and diligently read the instructions on the back of the bags. Yup, that was my method for growing this fabulous new garden. No gardening books for me! Fortunately, it seemed to turn out well. Look - crocuses!

I also have some tulips shooting up! Exciting!

Flowers are the only thing I planted - or plan to plant - this year. Mr. ValleyWriter and I discussed doing a garden, but with my track record, I was afraid it would be a waste of money in seeds and tools. Instead, we joined our local CSA (community supported agriculture) farm - Mountain View Farm in Easthampton. For a really reasonable price (I thought), we get a share of the farm's crops for the season. They plan to have a wide variety of all-organic crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, beets, carrots, strawberries, watermelon and more!

Since moving to the Valley a couple of years ago, I've tried to visit a lot of farm stands and farmer's markets, but I have to admit, I've still bought a lot of grocery store produce (even when things were in season). So this year, I'm so excited to get fresh-from-the farm, organic, local veggies all summer long! If you're interested - it looks like they might still have shares to sell - go check out the Web site today. Only a month and a half until the first crops are ready!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Braided Fruit Loaves

Today was another dreary, cold, rainy day in the Pioneer Valley. (Though I did get out for a short run this morning. My first run in 6 months. Woo-hoo! Just don't tell my rheumatologist!)

As usual, this not-so-fabulous weather put me in a baking mood. But I wanted to make something different than my usual sweet go-to treats. So I cracked open my recipe books and eventually decided on braided fruit loaves from my Fleischmann's Yeast Bread Machine Favorites book.
I did fiddle with the recipe a bit to increase the amount of fruit filling a little and to use an almond glaze (instead of vanilla). It turned out to be a very Easter-appropriate recipe, reminding me a bit of Babka Bread (just with a much bigger punch of fruit). I liked the apple and raisin filling, but I think the recipe would also be well suited to most any firm and/or dried fruit. I think I might try cinnamon & apple or pear & dried cranberry next time.

Here's the recipe. Go forth and experiment!

Braided Fruit Loaves
(Makes 2 small loaves or 1 large loaf)

Ingredients:

Dough:
2/3 milk
1 large egg
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. bread flour
4 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
Filling:
1 c. raisins (I used a mix of regular, golden and crimson raisins)
1 medium golden delicious apple, peeled and chopped
1/3 c. water
1/4 c. packed brown sugar

Glaze:
2/3 c. confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp. almond extract
2-3 tsp. milk

Directions:
Put dough ingredients into your bread machine in the order listed. Select dough/manual cycle.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling by combining ingredients in a small saucepan and bringing to a boil. Then reduce the heat and let simmer 7-10 minutes until apples are soft and most of the liquid is absorbed. Let cool.
When dough is done, take it out of the bread machine pan and place onto a floured board. Divide the dough in half.
Need 1 half of the dough for a minute or two so you can work with it. Then roll it into an 8" x 8" square. Place on a greased baking sheet. Spread half of fruit filling in a strip down the center, leaving at least 2" of dough on each side. Cut slits into the dough at 1" intervals along the side. Fold the strips diagonally across the center filling, alternating sides.
Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 30-35 minutes or until almost doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake loaves for 25-30 minutes, switching positions half-way through for even browning.
When done, remove from baking sheets and cool completely on a wire rack.
To make the glaze, mix together confectioner's sugar and almond extract. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly until glaze thins to a drizzling consistency (you may not use all of the milk).
Drizzle over loaves.

(The original recipe also calls for topping with toasted walnuts, but Mr. ValleyWriter doesn't do nuts in baked goods, so I omitted.)

As you can see, you get a fluffy bread with a nice layer of not-to-sweet fruit filling:

Braiding on Foodista

Friday, April 10, 2009

A new trend in dining? I hope not!

On a recent trip to the movies, Mr. ValleyWriter and I stopped by a new pizza joint—Arizona Pizza—next to the Hadley theater for a bite to eat. I'm not sure if others have heard of it, but apparently it's a chain. I don't normally write about chain restaurants (and try not to visit them too often), but I'm making an exception as a public service to others.

The restaurant itself has a Southwest-meets-sports-bar kind of feel. There was a bar to one side and a booths and tables on the other side. We were led to a booth and much to my surprise - there was a small TV right in the booth! All of the booths along the wall had them for our "viewing enjoyment."Now, I don't know about you, but I don't go out to restaurants to watch TV. Mr. ValleyWriter, on the other hand, was quite content to catch up on golf. And the young kids behind us also seemed quite happy to be able to watch their cartoons—at full volume. While I knew this was a casual restuarant, it wasn't quite the atmosphere I was looking for.

And the food? Eh. OK. Edible, I guess. We had a salad (basic iceberg lettuce) and a Mexican Pizza with chicken, tomatoes & jalapeno peppers.
The idea was interesting - and it looked appetizing - but the taste was a little disappointing. There was very little sauce and a TON of bland mozzarella, making the jalapenos about the only thing you could taste.

Maybe they think they can get away with mediocre food because of the great "atmosphere," but I think they need to reconsider that plan.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Super Easy Chicken & Broccoli Casserole

Time for another easy weeknight dinner. My RA is doing a lot better, so at least I have energy after work, but now that Spring is starting to show her face, I'd rather be outside than in the kitchen. This casserole comes together quickly and the cook time gives you just long enough to go do something else (tonight, that meant mulching around some bushes in the back yard).

Chicken & Broccoli Casserole
Ingredients:
2 (4 oz.) chicken breasts, cut into 1/2" chunks
1 large broccoli crowns, cut into florets
1 can cream of chicken soup
3 Tbsp. spicy brown mustard
1 c. stuffing mix
1/2 c. hot water
1 Tbsp. butter

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spray a 2 quart casserole dish lightly with non-stick cooking spray.
Mix cream of chicken soup with mustard.
In a separate bowl, mix stuffing, water and butter just until stuffing is moistened.
Place chicken in the bottom of the casserole dish. Top with broccoli. Pour soup mixture over the top of the broccoli and chicken. Spread stuffing on top.
Cover and bake for 45-50 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Healthy & Delicious Turkey Burgers

Today was a sunny Spring day here in the valley - still a little chilly with the wind, but a nice change of pace nonetheless. And since the grill is no longer encased in 3 feet of snow - I decided to try to give the warmer weather a jump start by firing up the grill tonight.

I try not to eat (or serve) a lot of red meat to help keep our cholesterol in check, so I often substitute ground turkey for ground beef - including when making burgers. This often does not please Mr. ValleyWriter. And I have to agree, straight turkey burgers are a little lacking in flavor. So tonight I decided to experiment a little. It sounds strange, but I added apple, dried cranberries and feta to the ground turkey before forming the patties - and the burgers turned out great!

They were juicy and flavorful - and far from boring. This will definitely be a new staple in our house when grilling season gets into full swing. Give 'em a try!
You'll need:
1 lb. ground turkey
1 medium golden delicious apple, diced
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/2 c. crumbled feta
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Form into 4 hamburger patties. Grill over medium heat for 10 minutes. Flip burgers and grill another 10 minutes.
I served with a side of grilled asparagus. A yummy way to end a beautiful day!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mini Carrot Cakes

Another dreary day here in the Valley. I think what makes it so hard is that we get little glimpses of Spring in between the icky days. Oh well - at least Spring is on the way - even if it's being a bit fickle.

So, with the dreary weather, I'm still in my winter baking mode. Tonight I was scouring the fridge when I came across a few carrots that were on their last legs. I figured carrot cake was in order - with cream cheese frosting, of course. I only had about 1 cup of carrots after they were shredded, so I made small carrot cakes (or carrot cupcakes, if you prefer).


Mini Carrot Cakes
(Makes 4 servings)

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 egg
3 Tbsp. applesauce
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 c. shredded carrots

For frosting:
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
2 oz. neufchatel cheese, softened
1 c. confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease 4 medium ramekins (or large cupcake tins).
Mix egg, applesauce, oil, sugar and vanilla extract together in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and powder, salt and cinnamon. Beat into egg mixture until well combined. Stir in carrots.
Fill ramekins 2/3 full of batter.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
Cool cakes for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges and carefully tap cakes out onto a plate to finish cooling.
To make frosting, combine butter, neufchatel cheese, confectioner's sugar and vanilla in a small bowl. Beat on medium-high speed until smooth. (The ingredients will "liquefy" with enough beating - no need to add more liquid.)
Frost each cake with 1/4 of the frosting.
Enjoy!