Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wine Cork Christmas Trees--A Step-by-Step Tutorial

I have a confession: I like wine. A lot. And a few years ago, when my husband brought home a big glass jar, I started putting my wine corks in there, thinking it would be a cute decoration. Well, now that "decoration" has started to overflow:

So when I was poking around and saw some wine cork Christmas trees, I knew exactly how I was going to use up my extra corks--making these cuties:

The perfect addition to your mantle this holiday season!
I wanted to share these because they are SUPER easy to make and a great little gift for any wine lovers in your life (or for yourself!). I am not normally that crafty--no knitting or needlepoint around here--but I loved making these because they come together quickly and provide an instant holiday feeling. So without further ado, I give you my wine cork Christmas tree step-by-step tutorial:

Wine corks
Glue gun
Hot glue sticks
Green magic marker
Red or green ribbon
Sharp utility knife

STEP 1: Pick out your corks
I suggest choosing a range of colors if you have them on hand, as long as all the corks are about the same length/height.

As for the number of corks you'll need, it depends on how big you want your tree. The basic pattern is that, starting from the top of the tree, each row needs 1 more cork than the previous one. Plus you need 1 cork for the "trunk" if your last row has an even number of corks, or 2 if your last row has an odd number. For the 6" tree I made in this tutorial, I used 22 corks. 

STEP 2: Arrange your corks into a tree shape
Simply place them with the unpunctured side (the side you didn't stick the corkscrew into) facing up. If you have a cork with a design on the bottom, you can use it for the top of the tree or "star," like I did with the "Zins" cork below.

Again, the pattern is to start at the top with 1 cork and add an additional cork to each row.

STEP 3: Add some color (if desired)
The wine cork Christmas trees that inspired me to create my own had some green corks mixed in and I really liked that look. I used a light green magic marker to add a little color to the corks above (it will come out light green if you color over a cork that was in a bottle of white wine and a darker green if it held red wine.)

Step 4: Glue the corks together with hot glue
Heat up your glue gun. Once the glue starts to flow easily, pick up the cork on the lower left of your triangle (the dark green cork in the above picture) and spread a small line of glue down the side the face the cork to its right:

Press the glue-side up against that cork to the right and hold for a few seconds until the glue starts to cool (and bond).

Now put a strip of glue on the right side of that second cork and attach it to the next cork in the bottom row. Repeat with all corks in the bottom row:

With the next row up (and all subsequent rows), you need to glue both the bottom of the cork and the side(s) so it will attach to all of the corks it comes in contact with:

Repeat until all corks are glued together:

STEP 5: Add ribbon
Cut a piece of ribbon about twice the size as the perimeter of your tree, then tie into a bow at the top:

STEP 6: Make your trunk
This tree had an even number of corks (6) in the last row, so that means I needed to create a flat bottom for it to rest on. I did this by cutting a wine cork in half lengthwise with a utility knife:

If you have an odd number of corks in the last row of your tree, you can use 2 whole corks to make your trunk:

STEP 7: Glue your trunk on
Squirt a small bit of hot glue between the middle 2 corks in the bottom row in the tree and the ribbon you tied on. Carefully press the ribbon onto the glue and corks. Then add another strip of glue to the outer side of the ribbon in between those 2 corks and to the rounded side of the 1/2 cork of your trunk:

Press the two together to finish your tree! Tada!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Eating the Seasons: Kale and Sausage Soup

I recently joined a CSA here in Southern California. I love the concept of a CSA because it really encourages you to eat locally and seasonally. Unlike the CSA I belonged to back in Massachusetts, where I went to the farm myself and picked out what I wanted from the offerings they had on hand, my new CSA delivers a prepackaged box directly to my doorstep. That means I never know quite what I'm going to get until it actually shows up. Honestly, I kind of like this aspect of it because it forces me to get creative and use things I might not normally try (waste not, want not!).

In last week's delivery, I got a bunch of kale, a big leek, a few red potatoes, a bunch of carrots, a bunch of radishes and a selection of delicious pears, apples and persimmons. Some of that is regular fare in this household. But the kale and leeks? Not so much. My husband especially is not a big fan of any of either. But I really wanted him to give them another try. So I went in search of a recipe I thought would tickle his fancy.

Since he is a big fan of sausage and bacon (you have to admit, they do make a lot of dishes taste better!), I started looking for recipes that would incorporate one of those. Eventually I stumbled upon this sausage and kale soup recipe, which ended up being the inspiration for my riff below. I tweaked it to use the some of the other ingredients I got in my CSA box and to match my husband's tastes (no mushrooms or cauliflower allowed!). Served with a big chunk of crusty sourdough bread, I have to say it was the perfect meal for a chilly Sunday night. (Leave the bread out and it's a great gluten-free option, too!)

The broth was incredibly savory and there was absolutely no bitterness in the kale or overwhelming "onion-iness" from the leeks. My husband not only ate 2 bowls that night, but also gobbled up the leftovers for lunch the next day. That's a sure sign of a successful recipe in my book! I actually hope we get more kale in this week's delivery so I can make it again! I highly suggest you give it a try—even if you think you don't like kale (or you have a picky eater at home).

Kale and Sausage Soup
(Serves 4)

2 links mild Italian sausage
5 small carrots, sliced (about 1 cup)
1/2 large leek, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 c. white whine
6 cups chicken stock
2 small potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1" pieces
2 cups coarsely chopped kale
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1. Slice sausages in half lengthwise and then again width-wise, creating 8 equal size pieces.
2. Place a large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausages in a single layer and cook until browned, about 3-4 minutes per side. 
3. Take sausages out of the pot and set aside on a plate for later. Leave the sausage drippings in the pot (do not drain!).
4. Add chopped leeks and white wine to the pot. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, then add carrots and cook another 5 minutes until leeks are fully softened and translucent.
5. Pour the chicken broth into the pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to help scrape off any caramelized sausage drippings from the bottom of the pan.
6. Once soup comes to a boil, add the sausages back in (along with any juices that may have run out as they sat), along with the kale, potato, bay leaf and oregano. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are cooked through.
7. Pull the bay leaf and sausage back out of the pot. Cut the sausage into bite-sized slices and add back into soup before serving. (Discard bay leaf.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cookie Dough Brownies

Yes, cookie dough truffles followed by cookie dough brownies... Someone around here might be on a little bit of a kick. It's a very delicious kick, though.

These were inspired by this recipe from the Brown Eyed Baker but heavily modified so as not to give us all heart attacks after eating them. I mean, I'm all for butter--but nearly a pound in a simple brownie dessert? Seems like a bit of overkill. I'm happy to report that you can successfully cut that (and the sugar) way back and still have a seriously amazing husband- and book club-approved brownie.

One tip if you decide to try these: plan ahead. The flavors develop best if they're refrigerated for at least 24 hours.

Cookie Dough Brownies
Makes 24 brownies

For the brownies
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
1 c. light brown sugar (not packed! just poured into the measuring cup)
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt

For the cookie dough topping
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 c. light brown sugar (again, not packed)
3/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9 x 13 baking dish with parchment paper that extends over the sides. (This makes a nice handle for you to lift the brownies right out of the dish before cutting.)

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until incorporated. Beat in the melted chocolate chips until dough is evenly colored. Then beat in flour and salt until combined. (NOTE: The lack of baking soda/powder is deliberate. Leaving it out keeps these brownies nice and fudgy.)

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake at 350°F for 22-25 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Set brownies aside to cool completely (about an hour or two).

To make the cookie dough, beat butter, brown sugar and white sugar until light and fluffy. Add in milk and vanilla extract and beat to incorporate. Add flour and salt and mix until well combined. Stir in mini chocolate chips.

Spread cookie dough mixture evenly over the top of cooled brownies. Cover dish and refrigerate at least 24 hours before serving.

To cut, use parchment paper handles to pull brownies out of the pan. Cut into squares & ENJOY!
(Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles

You know what I like best about making chocolate chip cookies? Getting to eat the dough! Of course, you're not *supposed* to eat anything with raw egg in it, so I try to restrain myself. But when I stumbled across this recipe from Bakerella for an egg-free cookie dough treat, I knew I had to give it a try. The result? Decadent perfection:

In addition to be absolutely delicious, this recipe comes together quickly--no baking required. Best of all--you can eat as much of the dough as you want while you're putting these together :-)
Here's my version, with a slight adaptation that uses real semi-sweet chocolate for the coating instead of "candy coating."
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles
Makes 20-24 truffles
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, softened
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
4 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
1 Tbsp. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. mini chocolate chips (for dough)
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (mini or regular--for coating)
Cream butter and sugars together until fluffy. Beat in milk and vanilla extract.
On low speed, mix in flour and salt just until dough is evenly moistened.
Stir in 1/4 c. mini chocolate chips.
Scoop out dough with a teaspoon and roll into 3/4-1" balls.
Once all dough is used up, refrigerate dough for at least 15-20 minutes.
Just before chilling time is up, place 1 c. chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat 1 minute on high, then stir chips until evenly melted. (Microwave for an additional 10 seconds at a time if chips don't soften when stirred after first minute.)
Using 2 spoons, dip 1 ball of dough at a time into melted chocolate and roll to coat. Place on wax paper or parchment to dry. Repeat with remaining balls of dough until all are covered.
Let sit at least 1 hour to fully set.
Enjoy immediately or cover tightly to store.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Homemade Fig Jam

The first year that we moved here, I was very excited about our fruit trees and made several kinds of jam to give away as Christmas gifts to our kind neighbors. Since then, I've garnered the reputation as the "canning lady" and frequently find myself the recipient of neighbors' excess fruit at the end of the harvest season. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to end up with a TON of fresh figs from my next door neighbor.

We don't have figs in our yard, so this was an extra special treat. I knew right away that I wanted to use them to make homemade fig jam - or vanilla fig jam to be precise!

Just like a fresh fig itself, this jam has a mild, lightly sweet flavor. The vanilla helps bring out some of the fig's natural sweetness, without having to use too much sugar. It's good on toast or served with crackers and cheese. Best of all, like most jams, the recipe is very easy. Enjoy!

Vanilla Fig Jam
Makes 4 8-oz. jars

4 cups peeled, chopped figs (about 15 small to medium figs)
2/3 c. water 
3 Tbsp. low or no-sugar needed pectin
1/2 c. sugar (or to taste)
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, sliced in half lengthwise

1. If planning to can your jam, bring large pot of water to a boil. Add jars to water and boil 10 minutes to sterilize. Turn off the heat and let the boiling subside. Then add the lids to the water (to get the seal sticky), cover and let sit until jam is ready. (If freezing the jam, skip this step and go straight to putting your jam in freezer-safe containers after step 4 below.)

2. Combine chopped figs and water in a large saucepan over high heat. Gradually stir in pectin and bring to full, rolling boil that can't be stirred down.

3. Add sugar and spliced vanilla bean to saucepan and stir until well-combined.

4.  Bring the mixture back to a boil and boil hard for 1 full minute, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and skim off any foam that may rise to the top of the jam. Remove vanilla bean pod and discard.

5. Carefully remove jars and lids from hot water.  Place jars upright on a stable surface close to the saucepan full of jam.

6. Carefully ladle hot jam into prepared jars, leaving about 1/4" of headspace at the top of the jar.

7. Using a cloth or paper towel, wipe the rims of the jars to remove any spilled jam. Place heated lids on top and screw on the outer band.

8. Using tongs, carefully place the filled jars back in the hot water bath. Ensure jars are covered with at least 1" of water. Turn heat to high and bring water to a full boil.

9. Boil jars for 10 minutes (if you are more than 1000 feet above sea level, use this chart for boiling times). Turn off heat and let sit 10 minutes.

10. Carefully remove from jars and allow to cool completely. Once cooled, check lids to make sure they are sealed (the centers be firm and not "pop" when you press down on them). All sealed jars can be stored at room temperature for up 1 year. Any jars that did not seal should be stored in the refrigerator and used within 1 month.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trip Report: Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs

After the long, busy summer I mentioned in my last post, I was dying for a getaway. Neither my husband nor I could take the time off for a full-blown vacation, but a long weekend at a nearby spa--sign us up! We looked at a few places within a couple hours' drive of San Diego and in the end decided on Palm Springs--or more specifically, The Spring Resort and Spa in the nearby suburb of Desert Hot Springs.

Sitting on top of a geothermal lake, Desert Hot Springs is home to numerous mineral hot spring pools. Our resort for the weekend, The Spring, had 3 mineral hot spring pools--all set at different temperatures. The mineral water actually comes out of the ground at 170°F, so it has to be cooled down before it enters each pool. The largest pool (the size of a regular swimming pool) was a comfy 90°F. Then there was a covered hot tub set to 100°F and a jetted tub set to a toasty 103°F. Of course, we tried all 3, but my personal favorite was the large 90°F pool--perfect for swimming, floating and getting some relief from the hot sun (90°F was actually cooler than the air temp--it easily hit 100°F our first day there). And the view simply couldn't be beat:

The main "resort" (in reality, it's just a small hotel with spa services--no restaurants or activities) has 10 cute little guest rooms situated around the pool. But we chose to stay in one of the villas situated just 150 yards of the property. They gave us an electric golf cart to drive back and forth from the main resort (way cool!), which made it super easy to hit the pools whenever we wanted. The villa basically gave us a nice little 2-bedroom apartment all to ourselves--complete with a living room, kitchen, 2 baths and a great mountain view:

You can also see some of the famous Palm Springs windmills along the bottom of the photo. Some people think they mar the landscape--but I love them! Green energy at work--hooray!

We each enjoyed a much-needed massage and then spent much of our time lounging by the mineral pools the rest of the weekend. But we did head into downtown Palm Springs a couple of times for lunch and dinner. The main downtown area is easily walkable and full of great shops and restaurants. I found the best sandwich I've had since moving to the West Coast at a little shop called The Sandwich Spot. It's tucked off the main drag, but totally worth hunting for. The Dutch crunch bread is amazing--almost a perfect replica of the New England "grinder" roll that I've yet to find out here (or replicate on my own).

For dinner one night, we checked out Trio, which bills itself as the restaurant "where Palm Springs eats." The fare is what I would call a Californian twist on down-home favorites. The food was solid, but not extraordinary--the kind of place I might visit on occasion if I were a local. The atmosphere is energetic and at times I felt like I was sitting at the same table with the couple next to us. That's not a bad thing per say--just keep in mind this is not the place for a quiet romantic dinner.

Before we headed back home on Sunday, we went back into Palm Springs for Sunday brunch at Jake's. This was more upscale comfort food in a fun, hip location. Their take on eggs benedict was delicious, as was the ginger-peach bellini I enjoyed along with it. Hubby clearly enjoyed his brioche French toast, too, as it was gone before I had time to ask for a second bite. We didn't have room for it this time, but the dessert case was filled with amazing-looking cakes that I would definitely go back for if we visit the area again.

All in all, it was a very relaxing, refreshing trip--exactly what we were looking for.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


After 2 months of radio silence--I'm back! I didn't plan to be gone so long. It's just one of those things that happened. I started my own freelance writing business back in June and things got really busy this summer. I couldn't keep up with everything, so along with piles of laundry and dusty corners--my blog took a back burner for a while. Of course, the fact that I had little time to cook and no time for travel played a role, too.

But after a few free weekends filled with jam-making and a getaway to Palm Springs, I'm ready to share again. First post is up tomorrow. For now, a preview:

A view from the pool...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Best Restaurants Blog Hop Round Up!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my favorite restaurants in my hometown of Oceanside, CA. At the same time, bloggers all across the country--plus a few from Canada and the UK--made their own best restaurants lists. And today it all comes together in one great blog hop round up! I'm very excited to share this list--and really hope I get to try some of these terrific sounding restaurants in my future travels. If you're planning a trip soon or live in any of the areas listed, be sure to check these out!


Eastern US

Tampa, Florida - I Run for Wine
Annapolis, Maryland - Maryland Momma's Rambles
Framingham, Massachusetts - 3 Garnets & 2 Sapphires
Orleans County, New York - Living Off Love and Coffee
Charlotte, North Carolina - MommyB Knows Best
Eastern North Carolina - Rebecca Lately
Raleigh, North Carolina - The Dirty Floor Diaries
East Greenwich, Rhode Island - Mama Luvs Books
Richmond, Virginia - Close to Home

Western US

Phoenix, Arizona - Brie Brie Blooms
Aliso Viejo, California - Una Colombiana en California
Oceanside, California - Adventures of Valley Writer
San Diego, California - Toot Sweet 4 Two
Wildomar, California - Simple Sojourns
Las Vegas, Nevada - Growing Up Gabel
Las Vegas, Nevada - Home Cooking Memories
Reno, Nevada - Saving in Nevada
NE Oklahoma (Route 66) - The Creative Princess
Tulsa, Oklahoma - Masterpiece
Austin, Texas - Texas Type A Mom
Dallas, Texas - The Effortless Mom
Dallas/Denton County, Texas - Coffee & Giggles
Houston, Texas - A Day in Motherhood
Palestine, Texas - Going Crazy! Wanna Go?
Provo, Utah - Clarks Condensed
Salina/Sevier, Utah - Home Maid Simple
Salt Lake City, Utah - Summer Scraps
Bainbridge Island, Washington - Popcorn and Pearls
Seattle, Washington - Faith Filled Food for Moms

Northern US

Chicago, Illinois - East 9th Street
Lake County, Illinois - THE ROCK FATHER
Long Grove (NW Chicago Suburbs), Illinois- Make Dinner Easy
Naperville, Illinois - Making Time for Mommy
Cincinnati, Ohio/Northern Kentucky - {enjoy the view}
Detroit, Michigan - Roasted Beanz
West Michigan - Eat Local, West Michigan!
Rochester, Minnesota - The Mama Report
St. Charles, Missouri - Robyn's Online World
St. Louis, Missouri - inRandom
Omaha, Nebraska - Midwest Mammas
Seward, Nebraska - Busy-at-Home
Dayton, Ohio - Mudpies and Tiaras
Miami County, Ohio - The Home and Garden Cafe
Greenville, South Carolina - The Destiny Manifest
Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Outnumbered 3 to 1
Norwalk, Wisconsin - The Mommy Bunch

Southern US

Northwest Arkansas - Jamie's Thots
Northwest Arkansas - MamaBuzz
Atlanta, Georgia - The Jort Report
Cumming, Georgia - In the Kitchen with KP


Quispamsis/Saint John, New Brunswick - Older Mommy Still Yummy
London, Ontario - Creative Cynchronicity


Banbury, UK - Bubbablue and Me
Bristol, UK - Slummy Single Mummy
London, England - The 21st Century Housewife
Portishead, UK - Practically Perfect Mums

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Best Oceanside Restaurants -- Blog Hop!

Hubby and I enjoy eating out from time to time--usually on the weekends as a treat for getting through the work week. Lately, due to crazy work and travel schedules, we've been eating out even more than usual--hence the lack of inspired recipes to share. But when I heard about the Social Fabric Local Restaurant Blog Hop, I knew it was the perfect time for me to join in and share all the great food finds the hubby and I have discovered while living in North County San Diego the last couple of years.

We currently live in Oceanside, CA, which is part of the "tri-city" area--the 3 cities being Oceanside, Vista and Carlsbad. All are within minutes of each other and you often cross over into one without even realizing it, so while most of my recommendations are for the best Oceanside restaurants, you'll also find a few Carlsbad and Vista recommendations.

So, without further ado - on to the list!
Best for Breakfast

Beach Break Café
1802 South Coast Hwy (aka the 101), Oceanside, CA
Located right on the main coastal highway between the Carlsbad and Oceanside beaches, this is a great spot for a homey, hearty breakfast. From omelets to pancakes to waffles, this place has all the usual favorites--along with ample portions and affordable prices. The restaurant has a fun beach vibe with lots of surfing-related photos and other items decorating the walls. There's usually a wait on the weekends, but they move people quickly. Insider Tip: When they give you a choice of bread sides-- get the homemade coffee cake. It's amazing!

Curbside Café
307 Main St, Vista, CA
If your travels take you inland rather than toward the coast, the Curbside Café is another great breakfast option. Here, the choices are more varied. They have the usual ham & cheese omelets, eggs & bacon, etc., but also some more unique items like eggs benedict made with crab cakes. Insider Tip: Share a cinnamon roll on the side--they are delicious and HUGE!

Best for everyday lunch and dinner
Love Boat Sushi
125 Old Grove Road, Oceanside, CA
This is part of a local family of restaurants, with 4 locations throughout San Diego County. Though we've been to a couple of the other locations, we always come back to Oceanside as our "home base." Located in a shopping plaza anchored by a Ralph's grocery store and a Lowe's, this little restaurant is unassuming and easy to miss. But it's worth hunting for if you love sushi -- the best & freshest we've had in North County. Lunch special bento boxes are a great way to sample a bunch of different dishes. Insider Tip: Try the Playboy Sushi Roll. Cream cheese may sound like an odd addition to sushi, but trust me, it is yummy!!

Café de Thai & Sushi
4196 Oceanside Blvd, Ste B, Oceanside
Another small restaurant located just outside a shopping plaza, we discovered this local gem shortly after moving to Oceanside and have been big fans ever since. This is our go-to spot for a quick weeknight dinner. They have at least 4 kinds of curry (red, yellow, panang and masaman) and amazing pad thai. And they're more than happy to tailor dishes your preferences,  allowing you to choose a spice level from 1-10 for every dish. Insider Tip: Happy Hour specials on beer, wine & appetizers (including some sushi rolls) make this an especially good deal before 7pm.

Las Olas
2939 Carlsbad Blvd (aka the 101), Carlsbad, CA
Located in downtown Carlsbad, Las Olas is in the center of the action and just a short walk from the beach. It's always hopping and is our favorite Mexican restaurant in North County. They have great ceviche, tacos and burritos, and yummy margaritas. Whether seated on the covered patio or inside the restaurant, Las Olas has a beachy-island vibe that always makes us feel like we're on vacation. Insider Tip: When it's available, try the pineapple mojito made with home-made pineapple-infused rum.

Best Pubs

Prohibition Brewing Company
2004 E. Vista Way, Vista, CA
If you're looking for a good ol' neighborhood bar that serves good beer and classic fare, Prohibition is it. Divided into two sections, you can sit on high tops in the bar area or on picnic tables in the main dining room. The TJ sliders (burgers made with pepper jack and jalapenos) and fish tacos are some of our favorites. Insider Tip: Order the spicy fried green beans when available. They are addictively delicious!

Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen
626 S Tremont St, Oceanside, CA
Taking the Pub experience a little more upscale, the Flying Pig combines the neighborhood pub feel with inspired farm-to-table dining. Ingredients are fresh and most dishes have a mix of the familiar along with a unique twist. There are new specials every night and they are often some of the best dishes we've enjoyed. The wine & craft beer selection is also notable. Insider Tip: Order the fried pickles when available--delicious with a nice cold beer!

Best for a more upscale or romantic dinner
Vigilucci's Seafood & Steakhouse
3878 Carlsbad Blvd, Carlsbad, CA
Vigilucci's is one of the first restaurants I went to when I started visiting Carlsbad with my hubby back in 2009. I'm not a big red meat person, so I can't vouch for the steak. My favorites here are the seafood & pasta dishes--and the view at sunset:

Insider Tip: Make a reservation and request an outside table for the best views.

Located in a corporate park, Rosina’s may not have the views or exterior appeal that Vigilucci’s does, but the food is absolutely amazing and the interior is tastefully decorated to give a homey, yet upscale Italian feel. Rosina herself often serves tables here, sharing the daily specials and making recommendations based on your tastes and preferences. Hubby loves the authentic Bolognese, while I like to roam the menu and try something new every time (and I’ve never been disappointed!). Insider Tip: For your side dish, try the creamy polenta—the best I’ve ever had!

Hubby and I travel a fair amount, and I always love checking out local favorites when we're in a new town. So tell me, what's your favorite local restaurant where you live?


Monday, June 17, 2013

Perfect Plum Torte

It's plum season here at Casa de Valley Writer. Our little plum tree is a superstar producer this year:

Last year, I discovered this terrific torte recipe to use up some of those little jewels. The tartness of the plums combined with the sweet, moist cake is just perfect for a light dessert or a yummy coffee cake-alternative for breakfast. 

Calling it "coffee cake" makes me feel better about eating cake for breakfast!

Adapted from The New York Times, here's my recipe for the:

Perfect Plum Torte
(Makes 1 9" torte)

3/4 cup sugar 
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted 
1 tsp. baking powder 
2 eggs 
1 tsp. vanilla12-14 small plums (about 1-2" in size), pitted and cut in half
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Line bottom of 9" cake pan with parchment paper and grease sides with oil.
In a large bowl, beat butter and 3/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add sifted flour, baking powder, eggs and vanilla. Beat just until smooth.
Spread the batter into the prepared cake pan. Top with plum halves, placed skin-side down.
Mix remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar with 1 tsp. cinnamon and sprinkle over top.
Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. 
Cool 15 minutes before removing from pan. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Homemade Wheat Crackers -- with a kick!

This weekend we found ourselves overstocked on hummus and completely out of crackers -- a very sad situation indeed. Not wanting to drive to the store, I decided to make my own homemade wheat crackers. We like things spicy around here, so I kicked them up with some cayenne, but that's a totally optional ingredient. Here's the full recipe:

Homemade Wheat Crackers
(Adapted from; makes about 35 crackers)

3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne powder
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup water
sea salt, for sprinkling


Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a medium bowl, stir together white whole wheat flour, all purpose flour, 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. cayenne powder. Slowly mix in olive oil and water and stir just until dough comes together. 
Place the dough on a long sheet of parchment paper. Roll out into very thin (almost as thin as the paper) rectangle (or as close as a rectangle as you can get!).

Cut the dough into squares and sprinkle with sea salt.

Carefully transfer the dough (still on the parchment paper) to a large baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 350°F until evenly browned. Some thicker crackers (such as those in the center) may need to go back into the oven for 5 minutes or so to full crisp up. 

Cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Beer-Braised BBQ Chicken

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Collective Bias™ Social Fabric® Community. This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for Collective Bias™ and Smart & Final #CBias #SocialFabric.

We eat a lot of chicken for dinner in this household. But to avoid the "chicken again?!?" comments from the peanut gallery (aka my husband), I try to shake up what cuts I use instead of always going for the default boneless skinless chicken breast. With grilling season upon us, bone-in cuts are especially appealing. They tend to hold up better on the grill, keeping their moisture and resisting over-cooking. For this recipe for Beer-Braised BBQ chicken, I used chicken leg quarters, which are the thigh and drumstick portion. The dark meat works great with the beer & BBQ flavors.

2 First Street chicken leg quarters
1 (12 oz.) bottle beer [I used a lager]
1/2 cup BBQ sauce, divided
2 Tbsp. First Street apple cider vinegar

This recipe has two stages, but I promise both are easy. To start, we place the chicken leg quarters in the crockpot and cover with 1/4 cup BBQ sauce and a bottle of good quality beer:

Cook for 3-4 hours on low, then transfer the chicken to a medium hot grill. Baste frequently with a grilling sauce made from 1/4 cup BBQ sauce and 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar (I find most BBQ sauces are too thick for basting; the vinegar cuts this down).

After about 15-20 minutes of flipping and basting every few minutes, the chicken is grilled to perfection and ready to enjoy!

The ingredients for this recipe were purchased at Smart & Final. First Street chicken leg quarters will be on sale next week for $0.89/lb at all Smart & Final stores. #ChooseSmart

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Trip to Wine Country - Napa Valley (Part 3... the end)

On Sunday, our last full day in Napa Valley wine country, we enjoyed a beautiful morning at the pool before heading out in the afternoon for 3 more wine tastings.

First, we went to Louis M. Martini Winery, which was right across the street from where we were staying in St. Helena.

Louis Martini is known for their cabernet sauvignon, which happens to be my husband's favorite varietal, so this was a must stop for us. They have a couple of different tasting options, and we each chose a different one so we could share and try more wines. Though this winery is set up like some of the bigger wineries with a common tasting bar that you have to find a spot at, I didn't feel rushed or treated like cattle. The person doing our tasting took his time with us and shared lots of interesting facts about the winery and the wines. The only downside is that this really is more of an urban tasting room, as compared to the other more lush, natural landscapes we'd been in at Saturday's wineries. No matter, though, because we really enjoyed the wines and ended up taking 2 bottles home with us... the collection grows.

Next, we took a drive down the Silverado Trail to the town of Napa itself and Clos du Val winery.

With Clos du Val, we were back to the beautiful, natural winery setting with the vineyards right out front (and behind, and to the side) of the tasting room. I especially loved all that ivy growing on the front of the building - so pretty and romantic!

We have ordered Clos du Val at a number of restaurants because it is always consistently good wine. This held true at our tasting as well. Again we split 2 different tasting options - the regular and reserve - the get the full experience. From the winemaker's signature Three Graces White to the class pinot noir to the reserve cabernet, we loved all of the wines we tasted. So much so that we decided to join the wine club and get regular shipments. Our first one is set to arrive later this month - I can't wait!

After Clos du Val, we took a snack and walk break before heading over to O'Brien Estate Winery on the other side of town in Napa.

Fun fact: an "estate wine" is one that's grown, fermented and bottled all on site at 1 vineyard. All of O'Brien's wines are estate wines. Many of the wines are also given romantic names (Seduction, Passion of the Heart, etc.) and include poetry on the wine label. Despite the lovely outdoor setting and unique presentation, I wasn't blown away by these wines. They seemed very average to me--drinkable, but for the most part, not worth $50+/bottle. I did really enjoy the Seduction wine, however, so we bought a bottle of that (tasting was free with a bottle purchase, so with tastings at $20/each, we pretty much evened out).

6 wineries in 2 days, plus free tastings each night at The Harvest Inn, and we amassed a respectable, but still manageable little Napa collection to enjoy at home:

I hope you enjoyed my Napa trip report. This was our first trip, but I hope it won't be our last. There are so many wineries to try - do you have any favorites you'd suggest for next time?