Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trip Report: Maui

I have a good excuse for my radio silence the last couple of weeks: vacation. And not just any vacation - a trip to Maui!! I have wanted to go to Hawaii for as long as I can remember, and thanks to all the traveling Mr. Valley Writer did last year in prepping for our relocation, we had enough frequent flier miles to make going to Maui a lot more budget friendly (Hawaii is expensive!!!).

We enjoyed lots of relaxation by the pool, strolls on the beach, as well as some snorkeling & volcano touring. It was absolutely beautiful! See for yourself:
Snorkeling Molokini Crater

 Black Sand Beach - Makena

 Tide pools - Black Sand Beach
 Mt. Haleakala Crater
View of the big island of Hawaii from 10,000 feet up on Mt. Haleakala

Of course, we also enjoyed lots of good food and drink. One my favorite experiences was the luau we went to in Lahaina (the Old Lahaina Luau). We enjoyed yummy tropical cocktails, great food & views and an entertaining hula show, too! (Sadly, there were no fire dancers. But I say that's just an excuse to go back someday!)

 Kalua pig - cooked in an underground oven (imu)

Happy Valley Writer!

I even tried the famous (or should I say infamous) Hawaiian poi (a taro root paste) - which, if you never make it to Hawaii, I assure you that you aren't missing anything! It's like cold, gummy mashed potatoes. Not quite my thing.

In addition to the luau, one standout food that deserves mention was the Black Pearl dessert we had at Mama's Fish House in Paia. Check out this presentation:

I'm slowly making my way back into "real life" - slow being the operative word. That includes getting back to creativity in the kitchen. While I love to cook, it is nice to give it up for a while (not to mention the cleaning and shopping that goes with it!). No worries, I'm sure I'll be whipping up some fall recipes soon; after all, Thanksgiving is just around the corner!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Homemade Caramel Pecan Bark Latte

I'm normally pretty simple when it comes to coffee. When I make it at home, I use a plain ol' French roast and take it straight up black. If we go out to breakfast, I might order a flavored coffee or add a little cream (sometimes restaurant coffee is just too bitter for me!). In part, my simple approach is because I like the taste of coffee as it is. And it part, it's because I don't really like to "drink" my calories. I will admit though, that when I lived in Massachusetts, I would "indulge" occasionally in a latte from my favorite coffee place a couple of times on a month.

Now that we've moved to California, the major source of lattes is just expensive (I'm too frugal to pay $5 for a coffee!), so I've only had 1 latte in 6 months. But, when I received 2 bags of Godiva Limited Edition flavored coffee as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, the wheels in my head got turning on how I could bring back my latte indulgence right in my own kitchen.

I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to steam the milk at first, but it turned out to be REALLY simple. All I did was put a cup of low-fat milk in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk it for about 2 minutes until it was nice and foamy:
Then I added a bit of caramel sauce to the bottom of my cup, filled 1/2 way with freshly brewed Godiva Caramel Pecan Bark coffee and the rest of the way with the milk - and ta da!
Homemade Latte!

The nice thing about the Godiva coffee is that it's got great flavor on its own, so you really don't need to do a whole lot to make a really tasty latte. Here's my simple recipe:

Caramel Pecan Bark Latte
(Makes 2)

12 oz. brewed Caramel Pecan Bark Coffee
1 c. low-fat milk
2 tsp. caramel sauce (+ extra for drizzle, if desired)

Put 1 tsp. caramel sauce in each tall coffee cup. Add about 6 oz. of coffee to each cup and stir to dissolve caramel.
Pour 1/2 of steamed milk into each up. (No need to stir - it will mix on its own.)
Drizzle with extra caramel, if desired.

Disclosure: I received the Godiva coffee free as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, but all opinions expressed above are my own.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Focaccia Pizza and A Smart & Final Giveaway!

Who loves Italian food? Who loves wine? Who loves free stuff? Me, me, me - and hopefully you, too! You see, Smart & Final contacted me to try out their La Romanella line of Mediterranean foods - so I created a yummy focaccia pizza recipe to share with you. You can check out my La Romanella experience (including a guest appearance from Miss Piper!) here.

But before we get to the recipe, I have to let you in on some goodies Smart & Final wants to send your way. From 10/5-10/18, when you buy a bottle of Redwood Creek Wine, they'll give you a free 16 oz. bag of La Romanella pasta. And... they're also giving away a trip to Sonoma wine country!!

To be eligible, you have to live in CA, NV or AZ and within 20 miles of a Smart & Final store. If that sounds like you - then hop on over to Smart & Final's Facebook page and "Like" them to enter the contest.

If you're not eligible to enter, all is not lost. Pour yourself a hearty glass of red wine and try out this recipe for focaccia pizza for a little taste of wine country & Italy all in one. The focaccia gives you a crispy rich outer crust and a light, soft inner crust. It's almost like a lightened up version of Chicago style pizza. Delicious!

Sausage & Roasted Red Pepper and Veggie Focaccia Pizzas
(Makes two 9" pizzas; serves 4-6)

For the focaccia:
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. dried rosemary, finely chopped
2 1/4 tsp. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 1/3 c. water
4 Tbsp. La Romanella olive oil, divided
1 tsp. salt
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. La Romanella Parmesan cheese

Pizza toppings:
1 c. La Romanella Tomato & Basil pasta sauce, divided
1/2 c. La Romanella marinated artichoke hearts
2 La Romanella whole roasted red peppers, cut into strips, divided
1 link La Romanella mild Italian sausage, cooked & crumbled
2 Tbsp. chopped sundried tomatoes
1 1/2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

For the focaccia:
In a small saute pan, heat 1/2 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add minced garlic and rosemary. Saute 1-2 minutes until garlic is fragrant and lightly browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix yeast, sugar and water. Let sit 10 minutes until frothy.
Add cooled garlic mixture, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 cups flour and 1 tsp. salt to yeast/water mixture. Stir until dough pulls together.
Flour a board with a little of the remaining flour. Dump dough onto board. Knead for 8-10 minutes until smooth, adding a little flour at a time as needed if dough gets sticky.
Coat a large bowl with 1 tsp. olive oil. Add kneaded dough and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise 30-40 minutes until doubled in size.
Meanwhile, use 1/2 - 1 tsp. olive oil to grease two 9" cake pans.
When dough has doubled in size, punch dough and break into 2 even pieces. Spread each half into a greased cake pan. Use your finger to make 1/4" dimples evenly over top of each piece of dough.
Let the dimpled dough rise 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Brush 1 Tbsp. of the remaining olive oil over the top of each bread.
Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan over the top of each.
Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes until top of bread is lightly browned.
Let cool 10-15 minutes before using for pizzas. (You can also make the focaccia a day or two ahead of time.)

To make the pizzas:
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Top each focaccia with 1/2 c. tomato & basil sauce.
Spread the artichoke hearts, 1/2 of the roasted red pepper strips and the chopped sundried tomatoes evenly over the top of one of the focaccia breads. Top with 3/4 c. mozzarella cheese.
Spread sausage and remaining red peppers over the top of the other focaccia bread. Top with remaining 3/4 c. mozzarella.
Place pizzas on a cookie sheet and bake for 12 minutes or until cheese is melted and lightly browned. Let cool 2-3 minutes before cutting & serving.

This project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #LaRomanella #collectivebias #CBias. All of the opinions expressed above are my own.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sausage & Rice Baked Stuffed Pumpkin

Once a month, my book club has a potluck dinner where we all bring a dish to share and then discuss the latest month's read over dinner. Sometimes we do a dinner theme related to the book - like when we made Mennonite dishes the month we read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (loved the book, by the way; if you like David Sedaris' style, I'd highly recommend it). This month's theme isn't related to the book (The Forgotten Garden - haven't finished it yet, but so far, so good!), but rather to the season. We're doing Halloween inspired dishes!

I haven't decided what to make. The obvious choice, to me anyway, would be a dessert. But I want to make sure there's some "real food" there too. So, I was looking through recipes online and this Sausage Stuffed Pumpkins recipe really caught my eye. I decided to try it out first to see how I liked it and if it would work in a potluck setting. As you can see - it's a pretty neat presentation:

And with the changes I made to suit our tastes (no mushrooms, cut way back on the onions/shallots) and my less-fuss cooking attitude - it was absolutely delicious! The pumpkin totally softens up, so with each bite, you get both the sweet, soft pumpkin and savory sausage and rice. It's a perfect fall meal, if you ask me.

In the end, I decided it's probably not the best potluck dish where people will be eating on couches and balancing plates on their laps, since the filling isn't super stiff. But assuming you eat dinner at the table, that shouldn't be an obstacle - so I'd highly recommend giving this a try. It would also make a great Thanksgiving dish!
Here's my adaptation:

Sausage & Rice Baked Stuffed Pumpkin
1 cup instant brown rice
1 1/2 + 1/4 cups chicken broth (about 1 can)
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. olive oil
2 links mild Italian sausage
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 shallot, minced
3 Tbsp. white wine
1/4 c. dried currents
1 tsp. dried sage
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1 sugar pumpkin (about 2.5 - 3 lbs.)
salt & pepper

Carve a circle around the top of the pumpkin to cut the top off, as if you were getting ready to carve a jack o' lantern. Scoop the seeds & pulp out and discard. (You can save the top for presentation if you want; I did not.)
Sprinkle the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper. Place in a 2-quart casserole dish or other baking pan filled with 1/2" water.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a small sauce pan, bring 1 1/2 c. chicken stock and 1/2 tsp. curry to a boil. Add 1 cup instant brown rice and reduce heat to low, simmer for 10-15 minutes (as recommended by package directions) until cooked.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp. olive oil in a small saute pan over medium heat. Cut sausage links open and crumble meat into pan, discarding casing. Saute about 5 minutes until no longer pink. Push the sausage to the side of the pan and add minced garlic and shallots to the open space. Saute 1-2 minutes until soft. Add currents, sage, parsley, 1/4 c. chicken broth and 3 Tbsp. white wine to the sausage/shallot mixture. Stir to combine. Let cook over medium-low heat until most of the liquid is absorbed.
Add cooked rice to sausage mixture and stir well to combine. Scoop mixture into pumpkin. Top with pumpkin topper, if using. Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F. Loosely cover with foil and bake another 30 minutes until pumpkin flesh is soft.
Let cool 5 minutes. Then cut pumpkin into 4-6 wedges. Carefully place on plates, keeping as much filling on top of the wedge as possible. (I just scooped what fell off onto the side of each plate.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We've been Boo'd!

When the doorbell rang at 8:45pm the other night, I had no idea who it might be. We're still fairly new to the area and don't know too many people yet - especially people who would be coming for a visit at that time of night. So, I flipped on the light and peered out the peephole - nothing. So I peeked out the window. And there I spied a little package on the front mat. It was a bright Halloween goody bag. When I opened it up, I found some goodies and this poem inside:

I'd never heard of this game before, but apparently it's been around a while. Basically, whoever starts it makes up a few bags of Halloween treats and copies of a "Boo" sign and the above poem and secretly drops it them on a few neighbors' doorsteps. Then those neighbors each make 2 more goodie bags and copies of the poem and secretly drop them on other doorsteps. Rinse, lather, repeat. I just think this is such a great idea! It's a fun way to build a sense of community and do something even people without kids can enjoy.

So, of course I had to participate. I found copies of the "Boo" sign and poem here, so I printed them out and attached them to Halloween treat bags filled with chocolates and a miniature pumpkin. Last night, after dark, I snuck up to the neighbor's front door, dropped the bag, rang the bell and ran like heck to the next neighbor's house. I dropped the other bag there and then hauled it home before anyone could see me. I felt like mischievous kid - so much fun! And Mr. Valley Writer got some amusement from watching my shenanigans from our 2nd floor window, too. I hope our neighbors got as much of a kick out of it as we did.

Have you ever heard of the Boo game? Do you do it in your neighborhood? (If not - why not start a new tradition?! All the instructions are included in the link above!)