Friday, December 31, 2010

One last indulgence for 2010 - S'mores Bars

I've mentioned a few times that I have a thing for s'mores. The ooey, gooey marshmallow and warm chocolate, sandwiched between crunchy graham crackers - perfection. The fact that I associate them with wonderful summer nights spent around the campfire laughing and having fun probably doesn't hurt, either. So what's a girl to do in the dead of winter? Well, there's always the gas stove to roast marshmallows over... but that's sometimes a messy proposition. Enter the s'mores bar - almost like a s'mores brownie, really. Not quite as ooey, gooey, but still just as yummy - and great for sharing. I made up a batch for a New Year's Eve party - and can't wait to dig in!

S'mores Bars
(Makes about 20 bars)

3/4 c. butter, softened
1 1/3 c. white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1 1/4 c. graham cracker crumbs
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
3 large chocolate bars (or 7-8 regular sized)
1 1/2 - 2 c. mini-marshmallows
1 whole graham cracker

Line a 13x9 inch pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla. Beat until well mixed.
In a smaller bowl, mix flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking soda and salt. Add to butter mixture and beat just until ingredients come together.
Reserve 3/4 c. of butter/flour mixture for topping.
Press remaining butter/flour mixture into bottom of lined pan.
Unwrap chocolate bars and lay on top of butter/flour mixture. (Break into pieces if needed to make an even layer of chocolate.)
Sprinkle mini-marshmallows over top. (I say to use 1 1/2 - 2 c. because I usually don't measure - I just sprinkle until there's a full layer. It's about 3/4 of a package, which is about 1 1/2 -2 cups.)
Crumble reserved butter/flour mixture evenly over the top of the marshmallows.
Take the whole graham cracker and crush it between your hands, then sprinkle evenly over the top of everything.
Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes until marshmallows are lightly browned on top.
Cool completely before cutting.

Wishing you all a safe and happy New Year's Eve ~ and a prosperous 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Traditions

I was talking with my mom this morning - and reading some related blogs lately - about the over-commercialization of the holidays. One particularly annoying phenomenon (to me anyway) are those darn car commercials that seem to have grown in leaps and bounds this year. Seriously - who gets a new car for Christmas? Especially given the current economy? (And how do you get it inside your living room, to boot!?)

It almost makes you feel bad if you go with something simple or even something homemade. But the key there is that it *almost* makes you feel bad. In reality, no one should feel bad about any gift they give. Getting all stressed out and uptight about gift giving goes against the whole idea of the holidays. While I celebrate Christmas, I believe that's true no matter what holiday you celebrate.

Now, that's not to say that I don't participate at all in the commercialism of the holidays. Admittedly, I do buy gifts for others and I also make some things. But the most important part of the holidays for me is actually spending time with the people I'm bringing those gifts to. I look forward to the various get-togethers - from the big luncheon with my mom's side of the family (where there are so many people, we have to rent a hall!) to the quiet morning coffee I'll enjoy with my in-laws on Christmas morning. These are the moments I treasure. To hug my loved ones a little tighter, to share in the happiness so clear on little ones' faces as they dance to Christmas music, and to just be together - that's what I'm looking most forward to.

(See? Even the cats get along on Christmas!)

Of course, being the foodie that I am, I'm of course looking forward to some yummy goodies, too. In part for the taste and in part for the traditions behind them. Auntie's famous baked ham, my mum & I sharing our traditional pre-dinner spiked egg nog and sugar cookie and so on. Yes, suffice it to say, I am in the holiday spirit and ready to begin the celebration with family and friends - only a couple more days to go!

If you find yourself with a moment in between your festivities, I'd love to hear what your favorite holiday traditions are - whether for Christmas, Eid, Hannukah, Yule or any others!

Wishing you peace and happiness this holiday season - and all through the year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Treats 2010 - Super Easy Cranberry Macadamia Nut Bark

In past years, I've usually done a big, several day-long cookie blitz. This year, there's a lot more going on in the ValleyWriter household, so I decided to pare back to just a few things that I could complete in one day, without too much hassle. Fortunately, I found some great recipes that deliver yummy, impressive looking treats that really come together quickly.

First up is a cranberry macadamia nut bark. If you're not familiar with the term, bark - in the culinary sense - is really just chocolate with nuts, fruits and/or other goodies inside. This bark has a white chocolate base, so the end result with the bright red dried cranberries against the creamy white background is very Christmasy.

And while I'm not usually a fan of nuts in my chocolate, macadamia nuts are definitely an exception. They're creamy and smooth - the perfect complement to these tart cranberries. Best of all - this is the easiest recipe ever! 3 ingredients and less than an hour from start to finish - as in completely cooled and ready to go. Perfect for a last minute hostess gift or extra Christmas treat!

Cranberry Macadamia Nut Bark
(Makes a 17" x 11" pan)

3 12-oz. bags white chocolate chips (2.25 lbs.)
6 oz. macadamia nuts, roughly chopped
1 c. + 2 Tbsp. dried cranberries

Line a 17" x 11" pan with aluminum foil.
Bring 2-3 cups of water to a simmer in the bottom of a double boiler (or a medium-sized saucepan). In the top of the double boiler (or a metal bowl that's larger than the saucepan), add white chocolate chips. Stir chocolate until it melts. Keep stirring until smooth. Remove from heat.
Add chopped macadamia nuts and 1 c. dried cranberries to white chocolate. Stir until well mixed. Pour into prepared pan and spread out into an even layer. Scatter remaining 2 Tbsp. dried cranberries over the top and press gently into the white chocolate. Let cool 20-30 minutes or until hard. Break into smaller pieces and enjoy!

Monday, December 6, 2010

White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake

I made this beautiful white chocolate raspberry cheesecake recently in preparation for celebration that never came to be. I made it ahead of time just in case something disastrous happened (like forgetting to put in an ingredient and having the whole thing fail). Fortunately, the cheesecake turned out great... Unfortunately, the get-together got canceled the day after I made the cheesecake.
So, now I have a rich, decadent cheesecake in my house and no where to bring it. What's a girl to do? Dig into it by myself with a big ol' fork? Tempting, but that would be quite uncivilized, don't you think? (Not to mention the fact that we don't need to start the Christmas weight gain this early!) So no, I think I'll carefully wrap it up and stash it in the freezer - perhaps for a Christmas party. The red raspberry on top is very festive, after all.

If you're looking for a silky, yummy dessert - give this a try. It's actually pretty simple and the results are always impressive.

White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake
(adapted from

1 1/2 c. chocolate graham cracker crumbs (1 sleeve of graham crackers, crushed)
4 Tbsp. white sugar
5 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 cups white chocolate chips
1/2 cup half-and-half
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 Tbsp. seedless raspberry jam

Wrap a 9 or 10-inch springform pan in 2-3 layers of aluminum foil and spray the inside of the pan with oil.
In a small bowl, combine chocolate graham cracker crumbs, 4 Tbsp. sugar and 5 Tbsp. melted butter. Stir until well combined. Press into the bottom of a 9 or 10" springform pan.
Bring a small saucepan of water (or the bottom pan of a double boiler) to a simmer. Place a metal bowl (or the top of the double boiler) over the water. Add white chocolate chips and stir constantly until melted. Then stir in half-and-half until smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat cream cheese and 1/2 c. sugar together until creamy. Beat in eggs one at a time.
Add vanilla and white chocolate. Beat just until fully mixed.
At this point, start your oven preheating to 325 degrees.
Heat raspberry jam in the microwave (or on the stove) until it's the consistency of a sauce.
Pour 1/2 of the cream cheese mixture over the top of your chocolate crust.
Drizzle 1/2 of the raspberry jam on top of that.
Top with the remaining cream cheese mixture. Then drizzle the top with the rest of the raspberry jam. Run the tip of a knife through the jam to create swirls, if desired.
Place the filled springform pan into a larger pan (such as rectangular cake pan). Fill the larger pan with hot water until water reaches 1/2 way up the sides of the springform pan. (This creates a water bath around your cheesecake, which will help prevent cracking or uneven baking.)
Bake cheesecake at 325 degrees for 55-60 minutes until cheesecake jiggles only slightly in the middle when moved. (It should jiggle as a whole, like gelatin. If it looks soupy at all - cook it a few minutes longer until it's done.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Simply Sinful Chocolate Fried Wontons

Earlier today I was craving something flaky and chocolately - but had no desire to go out to the store. Upon pawing through the freezer, I came across some leftover wonton wrappers. And a lightbulb went on - I may not be able to get flaky, but I can get something crispy - fried wontons! A little experimenting and voila - crunchy, gooey goodness.
They may not be gourmet - or the healthiest things in the world - but they definitely fit the bill for an emergency indulgence craving ;-)

Chocolate Fried Wontons
(Serves 2)

6 wonton wrappers
6 heaping tsp. chocolate chips
1 Tbsp. sugar
about 1 cup oil
small cup water

Pour enough oil into a small saucepan to reach a 1-inch depth (this takes about a cup in my 1-quart saucepan).
Heat oil over medium heat until it reaches 350 degrees.
Dip your finger into the cup of water and run it around the edges of a wonton skin. Place 1 heaping tsp. of chocolate chips in the middle of the wonton wrapper, then fold the wonton wrapper in half to create a triangle. Press air out of the middle and press around the sides to seal the chocolate chips in. Repeat with remaining wonton wrappers and chocolate chips.
Place 1 filled wonton into the oil (carefully!). Let cook about 30-60 seconds, then flip and cook another 30 seconds until both sides of the wonton are browned.
Remove the wonton from the oil with a slotted spoon and place onto paper towels. Sprinkle with a little bit of the sugar. Repeat with remaining wontons.
Try to let each wonton sit for at least 2-3 minutes before eating (I know it's hard!) - the chocolate inside gets hot!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A new twist on an old favorite - sweetened-up French toast

French toast is a simple, classic breakfast favorite. It's pretty basic, too - eggs, milk, cinnamon & bread. But as basic as it may be, I still found myself one Sunday with a craving for French toast and a missing staple - no milk. I did, however, have some leftover sweetened condensed milk from a dessert I'd recently made, so I figured I'd give it a shot. We ended up liking it even better than the original version and it's become a new standard in our household! (In case you're not familiar with it - sweetened condensed milk can be kept in the cupboard unopened for months and once opened, stays good in the fridge at least twice as long as regular milk - so it's easier to keep on hand.)

The sweetened condensed milk takes away from the "egginess" that French toast can sometimes have. It also obviously adds some sweetness - but it's not over the top. I like to serve this topped with some berries and just a drizzle of maple syrup. Very easy, but very yummy!

French Toast (with sweetened condensed milk)
(Serves 4)

3 eggs
1/4 c. sweetened condensed milk
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
8 slices bread
1/2 c. blueberries
maple syrup

Whisk eggs, sweetened condensed milk, water, cinnamon and vanilla in large bowl.
Heat griddle or nonstick frying pan over medium heat.
Quickly dip 1 bread slice into egg mixture, coating both sides. Place on griddle/pan. Repeat with as many bread slices as will fit on your pan. Flip once bread is browned and cook another 2-3 minutes until both sides are evenly browned.
Repeat dipping and frying until all slices of bread are cooked.
Top with blueberries and serve with a side of maple syrup.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Another 40-second knead bread: Wheat Sourdough

I tried the 40-second knead method with a slightly tweaked recipe to up the wheat flour - and though I was nervous at first, it turned out great!

Seriously, this short kneading method rocks! I did find the initial dough ball had to sit a little longer to let the wheat flour aborb the moisture properly, but that's certainly no trouble! I love being able to just knead the dough for a few seconds in between other chores - and end up with an amazing loaf of bread in a few hours. I've left the starter for various periods of time - 2 hours, 4 hours, 12 hours - and it always comes out great. If you've ever been intimidated by bread kneading - you really should give this a try! The investment in a small kitchen scale, if you don't have one, will definitely be worth it.

Here's my wheatier-adaptation of the original found at the Sourdough Companion:

Wheat Sourdough Bread (40-second knead)

1 tsp. yeast
420 grams (g) warm water, divided (see method below)
350 g unbleached white flour
250 g wheat flour
10 g salt
1-2 tsp. olive oil
extra flour for dusting

In a small glass bowl, mix 1 tsp. yeast with 50 g water. Let sit 10 minutes. Stir in another 50 g of water and 100 g unbleached white flour. Cover and let sit at least 2 hours.

Pour starter into a large bowl. Add remaining 320 g of warm water and break up clumps with a spoon. Stir in remaining 250 g unbleached white flour, 250 g wheat flour and 10 g salt. Mix into a ragged ball. It may seem a little dry - but resist the urge to add water!). Cover and let sit 20 minutes (the extra time allows the moisture to penetrate the wheat germ better).

Spread about 1 tsp. olive oil on a large plastic/pyrex cutting board. Dump dough onto board. Knead for about 10 seconds. Return dough to a clean, oiled bowl and cover. Let sit 10 minutes.

Turn dough back out onto board (adding oil if needed to prevent sticking). Knead for another 10 seconds. Return to bowl, cover and let sit 10 minutes.

Turn the dough back out on to the board and knead for another 10 seconds. Return to bowl, cover and let sit for 30 minutes this time.

Turn the dough back out onto board and knead one last time for 10 seconds. Return to bowl, cover and let sit for 45 minutes or until dough is about doubled.

Turn dough out onto the board. Press it down gently on the dough to create a rectangle. Roll it up starting with the long side, so you end up with a long cylinder. Dust a tea towel (NOT a terry cloth towel) with a little flour and place dough in the middle, seam-side up. Wrap ends of towel over each to enclose dough. Let sit 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 410 degrees F. Carefully roll dough out onto greased baking sheet so the seam-side is on the bottom. Bake 30-40 minutes until bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Spinach & Feta-Stuffed Flank Steak

I'm back in the valley now - and back to my kitchen. After vacation, I was checking out the contents of the fridge/freezer and realized I still had another large grass-fed flank steak from Hearst Ranch to use up. Since the weather has turned markedly cooler, I decided to go with something roast-like - and so this recipe was born. It's a take off of a flank-steak roulade, but I didn't pound the steak as thin or use as much of it to actually be able to roll it into layers. It's still absolutely delicious, though!

Spinach & Feta-Stuffed Flank Steak
(Serves 3-4)
12 oz. flank steak (I took a 20 oz. one and cut it to use only about 2/3rds)
1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese
8 oz. frozen chopped spinach, cooked and drained
2 Tbsp. garlic onion jam (this is really good stuff! but if you don't have it/don't want to buy it - you could substitute some minced garlic)

For the marinade:
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. red wine
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. lemon juice

The night before, pound the flank steak out until it's about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Poke it with the knife to create slits in the meat. Mix the marinade ingredients together in a glass dish or plastic food bag, add steak and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to start cooking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the steak from the marinade and lay it flat on a cutting board. Spread the garlic onion jam over the top evenly. Spread the spinach out on top evenly, then add the feta - again spreading out evenly into a single layer. From one of the short ends, roll the steak up so spinach/feta becomes stuffed inside. Use toothpicks or cooking twine to secure the meat, if needed.
Place in an oven-safe dish.
Bake at 350 for 40-60 minutes, depending on desired doneness. (I cooked ours for 40 minutes to a temperature of 145 degrees F and it came out rare/medium-rare, which turned out to be perfect for us.)
Let sit 5 minutes before slicing.

I served this with some roasted patio potatoes - delish!

Flank Steak

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Amazing views, incredible food - Mistral Restaurant, Coronado, California

I just recently got back from a trip to southern California, tagging along with Mr. ValleyWriter on a business trip. Of course, we did manage to sneak in some fun while we were out there eats. We spent a long weekend on Coronado, a small island just next to the city of San Diego. We spent time on the beach, popped back into the city to check out Balboa park - and of course had some good eats.

(The bell tower at Balboa park)

The best dining experience by far was at Mistral, a French restaurant located at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort. I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures, but I felt it was the type of restaurant where you set the camera aside and allow the rest of your senses to indulge. (Though you can check out the restaurant's Web site for some nice shots.)

The first treat for the senses was for the eyes. The views were absolutely amazing. Over 1/2 of the restaurant features tall glass windows that manage to encompass views the bay between San Diego and Coronado, part of the city skyline and the ocean. We set our dinner time for 6 pm, hoping to catch the sunset and although the night turned a bit cloudy, it was still very pretty. We got to watch the sun fade behind clouds and create that characteristic red-orange glow, followed by watching the lights twinkling on in the city. At the end of the night, we even caught a glimpse of fireworks! (I told Mr. VW that was all my doing... but I don't think he believed me.)

As good as the view was, even better was the food. I started with a caprese salad, made with heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and tiny fried squash blossoms. Drizzled with a fruity olive oil and wonderfully balanced balsamic vinegar, it was divine. Mr. VW enjoyed a bowl of creamy pumpkin-orange soup with vanilla-poached prawns that was also a perfect way to perk up the appetite (and talk about some unexpected flavor combinations - they totally worked, though!).

For our main courses, I had an herb risotto with scallops, while Mr. VW had a bacon-wrapped lamb loin that came with squash stuffed with a vegetables confit. My dish was good - perfectly portioned and wonderfully creamy - but Mr. VW's dish stole the show. One look at his face after his first bite and I knew I had to suspend my usual disdain for lamb and give it a try. Oh my. It was melt-in-your mouth and had a wonderful flavor. The stuffed squash was no throw away side dish, either. It was bright and light, yet comforting at the same time.

Now when you've had an amazing meal like this, one could argue there's no need for dessert. I, however, would never argue that. So on to desserts we went! Mr. VW usually keeps things light for dessert and in keeping, he ordered the lemon verbena ice cream with rhubarb and strawberry consommé and the cutest little madeleines. It was creamy and slightly tart, but still sweet enough to be "the icing on the cake," so to speak. I went straight for the most decadent thing I could see on the menu, which was the bissou au chocolat. It was a rich chocolate cake with a praline crust, topped with a dark chocolate sorbet, drunken cherries and a perfectly placed flake of edible gold. It was a sight to behold - and to savor. The dark chocolate ice cream had just a hint of bitterness, which was actually perfect for cutting the richness of the chocolate cake.

Mistral Coronado was one of the best dining experiences I've ever had (so far, anyway) and I truly hope to have the opportunity to go back some day. If you ever find yourself in San Diego, I'd highly recommend taking a quick drive across the bridge to Coronado to check it out yourself!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spanish Tortilla

So I promised you a recipe to follow for using up my patio potatoes - and here it is (finally!). If you're not familiar with a Spanish tortilla, you might be expecting a flat roll-up bread recipe, like a Mexican tortilla. In truth, the 2 are nothing alike! A Spanish tortilla is closer to a frittata than to a Mexican tortilla - minus the cheese and plus potatoes. With chorizo sausage, it is absolutely heavenly.
(Spanish tortilla just pulled out of the oven)

Serve with a salad for dinner, or as an appetizer for a party. (It's great for parties because it can be served hot, cold or room temp.) Forgive me in advance for the amount of oil that gets used, but I assure you some of it will be drained off!

Spanish Tortilla
2 c. sliced potatoes (about 4 store-bought potatoes or 12 of the wee-ones I grew)
1/2 c. oil
5 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 link chorizo, cooked and sliced (or crumbled)
1 large roasted red pepper, sliced thinly

In an oven-proof saute pan, heat 1/2 c. oil over medium heat. Add potatoes in as close to a single layer as you can get (there will be some overlap). Cook potatoes for 10-15 minutes until cooked through, flipping often to prevent burning. Once cooked, scoop potatoes out onto paper towels to drain.
Reserve 2 Tbsp. oil and discard the rest.
In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Stir in chorizo.

At this point, start your oven preheating to 350 degrees.
Put the oil in the pan over medium heat again and add red pepper slices. Cook 2-3 minutes.
Add potatoes back into the pan.
Pour egg and chorizo mixture evenly over the top. Cook 5-10 minutes until mostly set.
Put into oven and cook another 8-10 minutes or until egg is fully set.
Remove from oven and let sit 10 minutes.

To remove from pan to serve, run a spatula around the edges and underneath, then place a plate on top of the pan and flip the pan over so tortilla falls onto plate.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

40-Second Knead Bread

When my friend Prof. Kitty first posted about her discovery of a 40-second knead bread that turned out just as well as dough she'd knead for 30 minutes, I was a bit skeptical. But the concept behind it - essentially that the gluten just needs time to develop, not necessarily brute force - made some sense to me. And I'm not that big of a fan of kneading (is anyone really?), so I decided to at least it a shot.

I found the full recipe with a picture tutorial here. As long as you have a kitchen scale and can do a little temperature conversion, this recipe is super simple. I don't have any sourdough starter on hand, so I followed the instructions for making a basic sponge. A few seconds of kneading here and there... time to clean the house in between kneads... and a few hours later- voila! - an awesome loaf of bread!

I thought it came out not only just as good as other recipes I've tried that require 10-15 mintues of kneading - but perhaps even better. It has a nice chewy crumb and is soft on the inside, yet with a rugged enough crust to make for easy slicing. One tip that I really love from the tutorial is the one about putting the bread in a floured tea towel to rise. It's perfect for helping the loaf keep it's shape, rather than spreading and flattening out like so many other recipes I've tried tend to do.

The first time I made the recipe, I did it exactly as the instructions state. From start to finish, it takes about 5 hours, though most of that is just waiting. This last time, I decided to make the sponge overnight to cut a couple of hours off the wait time and found it works just as well. Plus, I got more of that sourdough flavor.

I am a definite convert to this method of kneading. The real test will be to see if it works on other bread recipes I have. I'll let you know!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Spicy Grass-fed Beef Fajitas

As a member of the Foodie Blogroll, I was given the awesome opportunity to try out some grass-fed steaks from Hearst Ranch. When I signed up for the opportunity, I figured I'd be getting a small sample, as has been the case with other similar opportunities. Imagine my surprise when 2 huge 20 oz. packages of beautiful, lean, vitamin-packed grass-fed flank steaks showed up on my doorstep! I did a little happy dance (no one was around to see or videotape it, so you'll just have to visualize for yourselves).

The flank steaks, like all steaks from Hearst Ranch, came frozen. They shipped overnight from California to Massachusetts and were still solid as a rock when I got home after 6 in the evening - which clearly says a lot about the care Hearst takes in its packaging. I stuck one in the freezer for another meal, put one in the fridge to defrost and eagerly started to plan a menu. I knew flank steak could be tough if overcooked or cut the wrong way, so I just wanted to do a simple recipe. I ended up deciding on spicy beef fajitas with corn & black-eyed pea salsa.

When the steak was fully defrosted, I cut open the package and rolled out this HUGE piece of meat. I mean seriously - I felt like Fred Flinstone for a minute.

(This is 1 steak cut in 1/2!)

Then I covered it with the spicy marinade (recipe below) and refrigerated for about 6 hours. When it was time to cook, I did what I thought was a quick grill (about 4-5 minutes per side) aiming for medium-rare, but the meat still came out medium. I was a little nervous that I might have overdone it - but the meat was still tender and juicy - not one bit tough or stringy like I'd feared.

The beef was very good, though I will say it didn't have quite the exceptional flavor like the aged-beef we normally buy locally (though that beef is also grain-finished, so not 100% grass-fed). All in all, I was impressed and am looking forward to trying another recipe with the other flank steak I have in the freezer. Got any good flank steak recipes? Leave me a comment if so!

In the meantime, here's my Spicy Grass-fed Beef Fajitas recipe:


1 20-oz. grass-fed flank steak

1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 small cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. ancho chili powder
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. lime juice

Corn & Black-Eyed Pea Salad:
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. olive oil
2 tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. salt
2 c. cooked & cooled corn (fresh or canned)
1 1/2 c. cooked & cooled black eyed peas
2 small tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, diced

Flour tortillas
Hot sauce, if desired

To make the marinade, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add chili powder, stirring constantly. Cook for about 30 seconds, then add 3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1/8 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar and 1 Tbsp. lime juice. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes until chili powder is a deep reddish-brown. Set aside and allow to cool 10 minutes.

Once cooled, spread marinade (it will be thick and more like rub) over both sides of steak. Cover and refrigerate for 6 hours.

In another saucepan, combine 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 tsp. olive oil, 2 tsp. sugar, 1/8 tsp. garlic powder and 1/8 tsp. salt. Heat over low heat until sugar is fully dissolved. Allow to cool.

In a small glass bowl, combine corn, black-eyed peas, jalapeno and tomatoes. Pour cooled red wine vinegar dressing over top. Cover and refrigerate 6 hours to allow flavors to meld.

When ready to cook the steak, bring it out of the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, start heating the grill to medium-high heat. Place steaks on grill and cook 3-4 minutes on each side for medium rare (I'm shaving a minute off each side from what I cooked it at). Once done, remove from heat and allow to rest 5 minutes. Cut in strips running perpendicular to the grain of the meat.

Serve on tortillas with corn salad and hot sauce, if desired. (We like sriracha - yum!)

Note: Hearst Ranch provided me with free grass-fed flank steaks to sample; however, the views expressed above are my own.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Patio Potatoes

In the spring, my friend Jenn gave me some seedling potatoes that she had left over after planting her garden. I brought them home unsure of exactly what I was doing, but figuring I'd give it a go. Normally, you plant potatoes in long rows in the ground. But Mr. ValleyWriter wasn't too keen on the idea of digging up the lawn. So, I decided to try planting potatoes in pots.

I had 2 larger pots (18" x 18") leftover from some shrubs we had bought last fall, so I figured I'd just use those. I put about 6" of soil in each pot, added about 5 seed potatoes (eye side up) on top and then topped with another 6" of soil. Once the potato plants sprouted, I kept adding soil on top until I reached the top of the pot (this equates to "hilling" your potatoes if you plant them in the ground).

I gave them the most basic care possible - essentially just daily or almost daily watering - from mid-June through this weekend. They flowered a few weeks ago and the plants started to die off this week, which is supposedly the signal that it's time to harvest. Now, I have to admit - the potato plants got HUGE, so I was thinking maybe they were putting all their energy into growing green stuff rather than growing tubers. But, when I tipped the pots over - out came tumbling potatoes!

I have a mix of red, white and fingerling potatoes. And it's admittedly not a bumper crop - but I did get about 20-25 small potatoes for the 10 seed potatoes I used, so I'd say that's not bad. I'm sure their growth was restricted by the small pots I had them in, but I'm still excited to say that YES! Patio Potatoes can be grown!

Now the real fun starts - deciding what to make with my lovely little taters. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blackberry Peach Sangria

Yes, the wine talk continues... I mentioned last post that one of the wines we picked up from the CT Valley Winery was their "Peachy" wine, which is a white wine infused with actual peaches. It's technically not a dessert wine (it only has 11% alcohol and dessert wines have more than 14%), but it's still a little too sweet to drink straight up, in my opinion. When I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect for sangria.

As luck would have it, I was also recently given the opportunity to try out some Zaya rum and Driscoll's berries - so I decided to bring everything together into a fruity, white sangria.

Turns out, I was right on the money about those ingredients being great for sangria. They make a nice, light drink that's slightly sweet but still very refreshing. It would be perfect for a hot sunny day, but I'll take it on a rainy Wednesday night, too ;-) I especially loved eating the fruit at the end - it's like wine and dessert all in one!

Blackberry Peach Sangria
Serves 3-4

1/2 c. Driscoll's blackberries
1 peach, sliced
3/4 c. peach wine
1 oz. Zaya rum
2 c. white cranberry-peach juice cocktail

Mix all ingredients together in a pitcher. Refrigerate 1 hour to allow flavors to meld. Serve & enjoy responsibly!

Disclaimer: I received a coupon for Driscoll's Berries and a free sample of Zaya rum from Baddish Marketing Group. However, the views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just down the way... the Connecticut Valley Wine Trail

I know I have been remiss in blogging this summer. I have honestly been enjoying the weather and fun weekend trips away... much of which has taken away my desire to sit inside and type away. But! This last trip I took is one worth talking about.

About 2 weeks ago, we found ourselves with a gorgeous Saturday and no plans. So we decided to head south to the Connecticut Wine Trail. Friends had been telling us about it for months, but we'd yet to find the time. For our first trip, I had 3 vineyards mapped out. We made it to 2 before deciding that was enough wine tasting for one day if we were going to make it safely back home. That's the only problem with wine tasting -driving afterward. Don't worry, we played it safe.

Our first stop was the Connecticut Valley Winery in New Hartford. We sidled up to the bar with several other visitors to enjoy a tasting of 11 of their wines, all presented by one of the owners, Judy Ferraro. For each wine, she explained where the grapes come from (some are grown in CT, others are shipped in), what awards the wines have one, what notes people say they taste and what people use the wine for (other than drinking). I really enjoyed learning all about the wines - and of course, tasting them. Overall, I really liked the majority of the wines. They ranged from dry and crisp whites to rich, deep reds to fruity dessert-like wines.

My favorites were the Midnight (a red wine made from Frontenac hybrid grapes), Orange Vidal (a white wine with notes of honey and apricot), Just Peachy (a sweet white wine infused with peaches) and Raspberry Delight (white wine infused with raspberries). In fact, we bought a bottle of each of these! Tonight, I'm enjoying the Midnight again:

The one downside to the Connecticut Valley Winery is that there isn't a great outdoor space for lingering after your tasting. The winery building itself is a big barn set in the middle of a working farm. It was a gorgeous day and we wanted to be outside, but sitting next to a broken down tractor wasn't really appealing. So, we moved on to our next destination...

Up next was the Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield. This is actually the oldest winery in CT and it  definitely had the scenery we were looking for. The main building reminded me of something from the English countryside:
Photo copyright 2010, Haight-Brown Vineyard

Out front was a huge wine barrel and all around were rows and rows grape vines. Out back, there was a deck overlooking the vineyard, which was perfect for lingering on. We did another tasting here and enjoyed 8 wines paired with 3 chocolates. Like the Connecticut Valley Winery, some of the grapes used are grown onsite and some are brought in.

There were some good wines on the menu, but we weren't quite as wowed as we had been with the Connecticut Valley Winery. Here, we had just 2 main contenders that we'd happily drink again: the Covertside White (a refreshing, unoaked white blend) and the Picnic Red (a fruity, medium red). Both are made with grapes grown in CT... perhaps that's the secret to their success over some of the others. 

We bought a bottle of the Picnic Red and headed out to the deck to enjoy a glass before heading home. It was absolutely wonderful to sit back and enjoy the sunshine and the views of the vineyard (sadly, I forgot my camera and Mr. ValleyWriter's Blackberry photos just don't do it justice, so I'm not bothering to post them). Haight-Brown may not have had as big of a selection that appealed to me, but their ambiance was top notch, to say the least.

There are 19 more wineries on the trail to try. We now have a "passport" we can fill out with stamps from 15 more by the end of October and then be entered to win a trip to Spain. Wouldn't that be fabulous? I don't know that we'll make it to that many - but we're sure going to enjoy trying!

Friday, August 13, 2010

And the winner is....

Commenter #5 - Prof. Kitty! She said she'd get a fresh pasta maker with her gift certificate. I agree it's a good choice - and I've even got some recipe ideas to get her started: Lemon pepper pasta, Spinach lasagna and Pumpkin & sweet potato ravioli.

Congrats Prof. Kitty! I'll be emailing you shortly!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Citrusy Grilled Chicken Salad

Warmer, muggier weather has come back to town over the last few days. On nights when the temps are still in the mid-80s at dinnertime, I look forward to something refreshing and light. This salad was just the ticket tonight. With fruit, nuts, chicken, lemon and herbs - every bite packs a slightly different flavor for your mouth to enjoy.

(As an aside, we eat a lot of salads in the ValleyWriter household and one of my favorite kitchen "gadgets" is my salad spinner, which makes cleaning herbs, spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens a snap. If you're in the market for one, don't forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a $70 gift certificate to CSN stores. CSN has salad spinners and much, much more!)

Citrusy Grilled Chicken Salad
(Makes 2 main dish servings)

2 chicken breasts
1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. fresh tarragon, roughly chopped

4-5 c. baby spinach
1/2 c. mandarin orange slices
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. roasted cashews

1/4 c. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. dijon mustard
1 tsp. lemon pepper seasoning
1/2 clove garlic, very finely minced
1/4 c. olive oil

In a glass bowl, mix together oyster sauce, soy sauce, thyme and tarragon. Add chicken breasts and toss to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. (I leave mine in all day - so about 10 hours.
Grill chicken breasts over medium heat until juices run clear, turning half way through (about 7-8 minutes per side for 1/2-inch thick breasts).
While the chicken is cooking, toss spinach leaves, mandarin orange slices, dried cranberries and cashews.
In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, mustaard, lemon pepper seasoning and garlic. Slowly add olive oil, whisking constantly.
Pour dressing over spinach mixture and toss to coat. Divide into two bowls.
When chicken is done, let sit 5 minutes. Then add to salad and serve.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lazy Summer Saturdays, Tag Sales - and A Giveaway!!

***THE GIVEWAY IS NOW CLOSED (as of 8/12/10)***

I don't know if it's the same everywhere you go, but here in the Pioneer Valley, from May through September, Saturdays are the official "tag sale" day. Tag sale, garage sale, put-your-stuff-out-on-the-lawn-so-someone-will-take-it sale - whatever you want to call it - these events are huge in the summer months. On Thursdays, the signs start going up; Friday, the paper has a special section with the details about where there'll be sales and what goodies there are to be found; then come Saturday - it's game on.

On occasion, I like to puruse the offerings in my neighborhood. You never know what you'll find - be it a cool vintage (or vintage-inspired) bedroom vanity (I always loved watching my grandma sit at hers), gently loved cookbooks or paperbacks (can you ever have too many?) or a slot machine (seriously, I just saw an ad in the paper for a tag sale with a not 1 slot machine - but 2!).

Not only is it fun to poke around and see what new treasures you might find, it's always exciting to think you might be getting a real steal, like finding out what you thought was a Monet-inspired painting is really an original Monet! (OK, I know the likelihood is slim to none, but a girl can dream.)

Not everyone can enjoy the fun of tag-sale Saturday, but I've still got a deal for you. How about the chance to win a $70 gift certificate to shop at any of CSN's 200+ stores (like and Sounds pretty good, huh? Guess what - it gets even better: there's FREE Shipping in the U.S.!*

Personally, I'm coveting this ice cream maker:

Mr. ValleyWriter says we shouldn't have an ice cream maker at home because we'd be eating ice cream all the time. It's probably sound advice - and keeps me from buying one out of our joint account - but if I were to get a gift certificate for one... Well, then all bets would be off.

How about you? What would you put the $70 CSN gift certificate towards buying? Leave me a comment with your answer and you'll be entered to win. For extra chances:
1. Post a link to this contest on your blog (and leave me a comment telling me so).
2. Become a follower (and leave a comment telling me you've joined - or that you're already a follower).

No matter how you enter, be sure to either put your email address or a link back to your blog in the comments so I can contact you if you win.
Enter to win by midnight (Eastern daylight time) on August 12th. I'll draw the winner randomly on August 13th (so someone's Friday the 13th will be super lucky!) **THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED**

Good luck!

*Free shipping on most items. Canada folks - you're welcome to enter for the gift certificate, but you may have to pay shipping and other International fees.

Disclaimer: Although CSN has provided me the opportunity to give away a gift certificate to their site, I have not received any payment or compensation for my review and my opinions of CSN are my own.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

BBQ-rubbed chicken drumsticks & first-of-the-season corn on the cob

Over the last two weeks or so, I started seeing more and more "Native Corn" signs on my way home from work and I started to get excited. Valley corn is THE best in my opinion. It's sweet, it's juicy - it's perfect. But to do it justice, you really have to get it fresh and use it within a day or two. Picking up ears at the grocery store, when you have no idea how long they've been sitting there, simply will not do. It's taken me a few days to get corn on the menu, but finally tonight I got my act together and made it to our local farm in time to grab a few ears.

I decided to go really simple and serve it with BBQ-rubbed drumsticks. As I mentioned last post, one of my tricks to eating healthier, more organic, etc., is to buy things on sale. A lot of times, that also includes less popular cuts of meat. Boneless, skinless chicken breast seems to be the queen of chicken cuts these days. She goes for about $6/lb around these parts (that's for antibiotic-free, hormone-free, humanely treated chicken). But drumsticks and thighs? Always cheaper. Sometimes MUCH cheaper. This week - drumsticks were $1.49/lb. And drumsticks are perfect for grilling! They stay nice and juicy and they're very flavorful, even if you remove the skin.

BBQ Spice Rubbed Chicken Drumsticks

1 1/2 lbs. chicken drumsticks (leave the skin on for now; if you don't want to eat it, remove it after cooking)
2 tsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. ground mustard
1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. celery seed
1/2 tsp. salt

In a zipper bag or glass bowl, toss chicken and olive oil. In a seperate small bowl, mix paprika, mustard, cayene, garlic powder, celery seed and salt. Add to chicken and toss to coat. Refrigerate at least 4 hours to let flavors penetrate chicken
Place drumsticks on grill set to medium heat. Turn drumsticks every 5-7 minutes, covering grill in between, for about 35 minutes until juices run clear (if you're using a meat thermometer, aim for 165-175 F).
Let sit about 5-10 minutes before serving (just enough time to boil a few ears of corn - yum!).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Eating well (and healthy) on a budget

I think there's a notion amongst many people that eating healthy food costs too much. By healthy, I mean eating lots of fruits and vegetables, buying organic whenever possible, eating humane, antibiotic-free meats, etc. This is how I try to eat, with some convenience foods thrown in on occaision, well, for convenience.

Because I've always heard the "too expensive" remarks, I've also thought I must spend way more on groceries than most. But I just did a breakdown that surprised me greatly. On average, I spend about $130 a week on groceries. That typically feeds 2 adults 19-20 meals (we usually 1-2 meals out, though sometimes that's just grabbing a coffee and a bagel one morning). So that works out to about $6.50 per meal. I definitely realize that's still a luxury for some, but in my book, that's not that bad.

Some of the ways I try to save are by stocking up when things are on sale. I'll either plan my menu based on sales or freeze things for later. Speaking of planning, I always plan my meals out for a full week, right before I go shopping, so I can, say , use 1/2 of the cabbage on Tuesday for tacos and the other 1/2 on Friday for coleslaw. I also try to eat things when they're in season. Strawberries in December are pricey - and not that good. I have no problem with buying frozen veggies, either, if they're a better deal. They're usually flash frozen with no salt or preservatives added, so what's the big deal if you were going to cook them anyway? (That's my thought at least.)

What are your thoughts? Do you think it's too expensive to eat healthy? If I may ask, how much do you spend on average per meal? Got any tips to share on how to save and still eat healthy?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Simple, But Delicious - Quick & Easy Coffee Cake

As I'm sure many have heard by now - it was one heck of a hot, muggy week last week in the Northeast. We are fortunate enough to have central air conditioning (a luxury in this neck of the woods where it's really only needed a couple of weeks a year) - but I'm still not keen on the idea of heating up the house more than I need to, so I've been grilling and a sticking to cold foods the last week. And of course, the entire time, I've been craving baked goods. Silly, I know. I think it's almost that - "you can't have it so you want it really badly" mentality.

Anyway - we finally got some rain yesterday which cooled things off a bit, so when I woke up to find it was "only" 70 degrees this morning, I decided I'd strike while the iron was hot (but not the house) - and make a quick coffee cake.

The great thing about this recipe is that it's simple, comes together quickly and uses ingredients that most people have on hand. The only thing I sometimes am missing is the sour cream, but yogurt also works - especially greek yogurt. From the time you start mixing to your first bite, you only need about an hour and 15 minutes, and the majority of that time is for baking. 

Quick & Easy Coffee Cake

1/2 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. sour cream
1 Tbsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder

1/3 c. white sugar
4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream together butter and 3/4 c. sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Then beat in sour cream and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda and powder. Add to liquid ingredients, beating on low speed just until combined.
In a small bowl, mix 1/3 c. white sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Grease and flour a bundt pan.
Sprinkle 2 Tbsp. of sugar & spice mixture on the bottom of the pan. Spoon in 1/2 of the cake batter. Sprinkle remaining sugar mixture over the batter. Top with remaining batter.
Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes until toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Let cool for at least 20 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge, place a plate over the opening of the bundt pan and flip over to release cake.
Grab your favorite cup o' joe and enjoy!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Do you like pina coladas?

If you like pina coladas - even if you're not big on getting caught in the rain (heh) - then you'll like this latest creation - pina colada pudding shots!
We'll be attending a Luau-themed party soon and people often bring tropical-inspired drinks (and food) to share. There were some creative jello shots last year that sounded like they might be good... but there was one little problem - I despise gelatin. So, I didn't partake.

This year, I decided to try to make my own pudding shot (pudding is fine - just that jiggly gelatin that gets me!). I thought pina colada would be fitting for the luau theme, but I couldn't find a recipe. No worries, I thought - I'm always up for experimentation! And experiment we have... Finally on round 3 we got it down (don't worry, no driving or blogging was done during the trials!). So, now we have...

Pina Colada Pudding Shots
(Makes about 16 1-ounce shots)

1 (3 oz) pkg. vanilla pudding
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. cream of coconut
1/4 c. spiced rum
1/2 c. pineapple-flavored rum
8 oz. whipped cream

Beat pudding, milk, cream of coconut and rums together in a medium size bowl for about 2 minutes until the mixture is smooth and starts to thicken. Fold in whipped cream. Portion equally into individual cups (or any freezable container if you're just making them for yourself!). Freeze at least 4 hours until set. Keep in freezer until ready to serve.

Enjoy - responsibly!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Buttermilk Waffles with Raspberry Sauce

It was a beautiful morning this morning. Perfect for lounging around on the deck, lingering over coffee and staying in our PJs longer than is probably right for grown adults. But sometimes, you just need those kinds of days. When you do, these buttermilk waffles with raspberry sauce are the perfect addition to that vacation-without-leaving-home feeling. (And the best part is, they're super easy!)

Buttermilk Waffles with Raspberry Sauce
(Makes 5 8" waffles)

Sauce Ingredients
1/2 c. seedless raspberry jam
2 Tbsp. water

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

To make the sauce, combine jam and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until water and jam form a smooth, uniform sauce. Set aside.

For the waffles, combine the buttermilk, baking soda and baking powder in a medium bowl. Let sit 5 minutes until bubbly. Whisk in egg and oil. Add flour and sugar and beat until there are no lumps. Heat waffle iron. Laddle 1/2 c. batter onto iron. Close the iron and cook 2-3 minutes until waffle is golden brown and slightly crispy. Drizzle with raspberry sauce and serve. (Top with a dollop of whipped cream if you're feeling extra indulgent!)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Visit to the Land of the Locavore

I spent the weekend in northern Vermont visiting the Leftover Queen (Jenn) and her husband Roberto on their new homestead - Thistlemoon Meadows:

They took me on a tour of their town and surrounding area - and being the good foodies that we are, it turned into a bit of a food tour. But being foodies isn't the only reason for that. It's also because local food is EVERYWHERE. On every other street it seems, there's a sign for fresh eggs, VT produce, maple syrup - or some other necessity or yummy food item. Farmers' markets, farms, roadside stands - they are in abundance here. Even the restaurants I visited - from small ice cream shop to full-service sit-down dinner spot - highlight their local food sources.

We have a little bit of this in the Pioneer Valley. Certainly, we have our farmers' markets and roadside stands. But meat farms are a little further out in the country and restaurants don't seem big on posting their producers, which only leads me to believe (in most cases) they're probably not local.
So, what's the big deal with eating local? Well, that's a whole other post (or series of posts). There's economical and environmental issues up the whazoo that I couldn't begin to do justice to. But even if you can't wrap your head around all that - there's 1 undenial benefit of eating local. It's amazingly fresh & yummy! I often come home from trips feeling like I need days to recover - in large part due to not-so-great eating - but that's not the case this time.

Of course, this foodie tour lead to a *few* purchases along the way. This trip was solo, so when I came home with a big bag of food, Mr. ValleyWriter was a little surprised (though not too much - he knows me well).

I've got Rock Art beer, Nutty Vermonter maple & cinnamon nut butter, Clare's wild blueberry jam, Vermont Pepper Works chocolate chipotle hot sauce and Fat Toad Farm goat's milk caramel. Not to mention the tomato plants and potato seedlings Jenn & Robert sent home with me. I should be cooking up a storm in no time! (I see ice cream with caramel sauce in my very, very near future... like, as soon as I finish this post. Gotta run!).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Basil Chili Lettuce Wraps

With all this farmers' market talk, I imagine someone is wondering "what the heck does she do with all those greens? Salad every night?!?" (that's what I'd wonder if I saw someone with as much lettuce as I bought the other day...) No, we don't have salad every night (some, but not every). I do have it most days for lunch, though, so that takes up some of the haul. The rest of it? Well, I like to try new things - like the basil chili lettuce wraps we had tonight.

If you've never had lettuce wraps, it's almost like fajitas, where there's a bunch of components you can put together in the middle of a tortilla to make the version you like. In the case of lettuce wraps, large Boston lettuce leaves take the place of tortillas. They're good for hot nights when you want a light meal. They're also a hit with kids (and kids at heart) - 'cause you get to eat with your hands!

For this version, I had some basil chili grilled chicken, curry rice noodles, gingered carrots and sweet chili sauce for our fillings. It was spicy, but very good. And I'm proud to say the basil was from my very own garden - my first time having success with herbs - yay!
Basil Chili Lettuce Wraps
(Serves 2-3 for dinner; 4-5 for appetizers)
3 boneless chicken thighs
1/4 c. fresh basil
3 Tbsp. sriracha chili sauce, divided
1 tsp. oyster sauce
2 Tbsp. pineapple preserves
1 large head Boston lettuce, leaves rinsed and kept whole (I got about 12 large, useable leaves - the small or broken ones can be kept for salads)
3 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1" ginger, grated
1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
1 package curry rice noodle soup (these are like ramen noodles, only the Thai version)
1 cup water
soy sauce, if desired

Several hours before dinner, roughly chop basil and mix with 2 Tbsp. sriracha sauce and 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Spread evenly over chicken thighs. Place in a glass dish and refrigerate at least 3-4 hours before dinner.
About 20 minutes before dinner, mix grated ginger with rice wine vinegar. Let sit 5 minutes, drain any leftover vinegar off the ginger and add the ginger to the carrots carrots.
Cook chicken on grill over medium high heat for about 15 minutes or until fully cooked, turning half-way through.
While chicken is cooking, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and seasoning from the rice noodle soup package to the boil water. Cook for 3-4 minutes until noodles are soft and most of the water is absorbed.
In a small bowl, combine pineapple preserves and remaining sriracha sauce to make a sauce for wraps.
Cut cooked chicken into strips and place on serving dish along with lettuce leaves, gingered carrots, curry noodles, and sweet chili sauce and soy sauce, if desired. 
To prepare a wrap, place a lettuce leaf in the palm of your hand and top with a few pieces of chicken, some carrots and noodles, drizzle with chili and/or soy sauce, fold the lettuce inward like a fajita and enjoy!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Amherst Farmers' Market

The 2nd stop on my farmers market tour of the pioneer valley was the Amherst Farmers' Market.

The Amherst market runs late April through mid-November and is always hopping. I'd been to this one before, so I knew to expect a bigger crowd - and more choices - than last week's Tuesday Northampton market. The downside of this market is that it's a little more rushed because there are so many people there, but for the convenience of a Saturday, I suppose it's to be expected.

This week at the market, we found lots of greens again - lettuce, arugula, spinach, kale and so on. There were also some early tomatoes, some of the first strawberries of the season, lots of flowers, and a few options for grass-fed meat, goat cheese, fresh eggs, and homemade breads and pastries.

Mr. ValleyWriter and I found a lot of what we wanted at the Atlas Farm stand. Atlas is a certified organic farm from nearby Deerfield, MA. We got several pounds of greens and some tomatoes there. We also hit up Round Hill Orchard, from Southampton, MA, for some freshly picked strawberries (beautifully ripe and sweet - yum!!) and Sanjha Farm again for their goat cheese (roasted red pepper this time).

All in all it was a good haul, which Mr. VW dutifully carried back to the car and unwittingly posed for his usual parting shot...

As a P.S., while I didn't need any meat this week, I was excited to see several farm stands selling a variety of cuts - from grass-fed ground beef to dry aged steaks to pork tenderloins. One of the farms, Austin Brothers, even has a meat CSA - which is a new one on me, but sounds like a great idea. Basically, you commit to buying a certain number of pounds a month and they deliver a variety of cuts to you at a pick up location. Even the smallest package is only $9/lb., which is a pretty fair price for grass-fed and dry aged beef (around the valley, anyway). The prices get even better the more you buy (though I'm not sure how much my side-by-side freezer could hold - or how creative I could get with potentially unfamiliar cuts of meat). Anyone out there try a meat CSA yet? What were your thoughts?

Monday, May 31, 2010

(Almost) Sunday Suppers: Spinach & Bacon Souffle

Here I am, sitting down at the end of another gorgeous weekend getting ready to do my "Sunday Suppers" post, when I realized - it's not Sunday. As they say - time flies when you're having fun! I don't know about you, but Monday holidays often end up feeling like Sundays to me - a chance to relax and gear up for the week ahead. So, as part of that, we had our Sunday Supper tonight.

I had planned this dinner out last week when I picked up some baby spinach from the Farmers Market. I found this recipe and thought it would work great for the 2 of us, since it was only 3 eggs. (Most of the other recipes I found had 5 or 6 - way too much for 2 people.) I was all set to go... until I realized I'd used the last of the butter in a batch of cookies I made for a BBQ we went to on Sunday. I didn't want to go out, so I got creative with what I had on hand (dangerous when you're making a recipe for the first time!). I nervously put my goat & neufchatel-cheese-subbed-for-butter creation into the oven and was so excited when I opened it 30 minutes later, I took a picture right then and there. Drum roll please.... my Spinach & Bacon Souffles:

Big and puffy just like they're supposed to be. And they tasted yummy, too! As a happy accident, they also happen to be lighter on the saturated fat (never a bad thing in my book) owing to the lack of butter. To boot, they were really easy to make. I'd say if you can beat egg whites, you can make souffle.

On to the recipe -

Spinach & Bacon Souffle
(Serves 2)

3 slices turkey bacon
1 lb. fresh spinach, stems removed
1 Tbsp. goat cheese
1 oz. neufchatel cheese
2 Tbsp. flour
1 cup low-fat milk
2 Tbsp. parmesan cheese
3 eggs, separated
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. ground pepper
olive oil spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut turkey bacon into 1/2" pieces and tear spinach into bite sized pieces. Spray a frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add bacon to pan and cook 3-4 minutes until bacon starts to crisp. Add spinach on top, reduce heat to low and cook another 2-3 minutes until spinach is wilted.
In a small sauce pan over medium heat, combine goat cheese, neufchatel and 2 Tbsp. of milk. Stir until cheese melts. Add flour and whisk constantly until smooth. Slowly add remaining milk, then the parmesan cheese, whisking constantly until mixture thickens. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and spinach and bacon mixture.
Separate eggs, reserving whites in a clean, cold bowl. Beat egg yolks in a small bowl. Add about 1/3 of the spinach/milk mixture to the yolks and whisk. Slowly add this to the remaining spinach/milk mixture.
Beat separated egg whites into stiff peaks. Slowly fold the spinach/yolk/milk mixture into the egg whites just until combined. (There may be lumps of egg white - that's OK. You don't want to over-fold.)
Pour mixture evenly into two well-greased, 2-cup ramekins. Place on cookie sheet and bake at 375 for 25 minutes (no peaking!) until souffle is poofy and eggs are cooked all the way through. 
Serve in ramekins.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Northampton Tuesday Farmers' Market

This summer, we decided not to join the CSA and to instead check out the local farmers' markets for fresh produce. We're lucky enough to have quite a few markets within a 15 mile radius, so I'm hoping to check out as many different ones as a I can.

My first stop this year was to the Northampton Tuesday Farmers' Market behind Thorne's Marketplace. (There's also one on Saturdays, but in a different spot - hence the distinction in the name.)
As I expected for early in the season, I found mostly salad greens, seedlings and flowers for sale. It worked out, because that's just what I was looking for. I loaded my bag up with mixed organic greens and bok choy from Old Friends Farm in Amherst, spinach from Town Farm in Northampton, and kale and boston lettuce from Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton. I also was lucky enough to find Sangha Farm (in Ashfield) offering chevre (goat cheese), which I gladly picked up a tub of.

It turned out to be perfect timing to have all these fresh, wonderful greens - because we're having some HOT weather this week. Tonight, I wanted nothing to do with the stove, so I turned to a bunch of these great ingredients for a quick and simple -yet delicious - salad. It's a true tour of what western MA farms have to offer, featuring the mixed salad greens from Old Family Farm, spinach from Town Farm and chevre from Sangha Farm.

Roasted Red Pepper & Chevre Mixed Green Salad
(Serves 2)

3 cups leafy mixed greens
1 cup baby spinach
1 roasted red pepper, sliced
2 oz. chevre
1/4 c. toasted pine nuts

3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
3 Tbsp. olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Combine greens and spinach in a bowl. Sprinkle pepper slices, chevre and pine nuts evenly over the top.
To make the dressing, combine vinegar, mustard in garlic powder in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking constantly until well combined. Add salt & pepper to taste. Drizzle over salad and enjoy right away!

(I must give a special shout out to Casey from Old Friends Farm who I was lucky enough to have a nice, albeit quick, chat with. I told him about my project and he shared his own wish, if it were possible, to take some summers off to visit all of his friends' farms. He's always so hard at work during the growing season, he's never had a chance to see them in full bloom. He made me realize how lucky I am to have this opportunity to "travel" the various farms through these markets - not only to get to see all their offerings, but also to hear some of their stories. Here's a special thanks to all the hard work that people like him do - thank you!!)