Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Weathering The Storm

Well, we survived the storm! Thankfully we weren't hit too hard in the Boston area.  We had some pretty crazy wind, a little rain, and a lot of drizzle. We were lucky that we never even lost power. So how did we ride out the storm? By cooking, eating, drinking, napping, and reading of course!

Sunday night we had reservations for a Chef's Whim dinner at Craigie on Main. We didn't feel like leaving the house, as the miserable drizzle had set in, but I'm glad we pushed ourselves to go. The restaurant was lovely, cozy, and warm. The Chef's Whim dinner is a 6 course affair where you are seated and then brought surprise courses throughout the evening. You choose nothing. As our waitress eloquently put it, "The food will come when it comes." They gave us a little card to jot down any notes, and we enjoyed a bottle of Beaujolais as we anticipated each course. It was a lot of fun! My favorite course was a perfectly cooked piece of Scottish Trout served with Chorizo.
Once we got home for the evening, we were notified that work would be closed on Monday, so we settled onto the couch in our pj's with another glass of wine (or two).

Monday, we slept in and awoke to continued drizzle and relatively calm winds. Just in case, I had a few pitchers filled with water, homemade pumpkin bread, and a few other non-refrigerated foods in the pantry.  Winds and rain picked up as the day went on. We ventured outside after lunch for a trip to Whole Foods, as we had forgotten to get carrots on our grocery store run this weekend (a pretty important item when Indonesian Carrot Soup is on the menu).  As we checked out with our carrots, oregano, and heavy cream, the bagger looked down at my items, looked up at me, smiling  and said "Hurricane essentials?"  Absolutely.

We spent the rest of the day working remotely for a bit, reading on the couch, napping, and checking the weather channel every now and then while the wind howled outside. My husband made pumpkin bourbon ice cream (recipe to come), and after dinner we watched a movie while sipping on Apple Ginger Hot Toddies. All in all, not a bad day.
This morning, we surveyed the minor damage -- a few small limbs littering the street, a larger limb down across the sidewalk a couple houses down, and most of the leaves shaken from the trees. A few trees were down on other streets in the neighborhood, but we were lucky in Medford. My prayers are with those in harder hit areas as we return to work and our normal daily lives around here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What's Cooking?

For the last three weeks, I've either been eating out with visiting friends or galavanting around on business trips to LA and Denver, so come this week, I was craving real food something fierce. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed being back in my kitchen. These recipes were just what I needed to get me back into the swing of things.

After weeks of rich restaurant food, I just wanted something simple that involved vegetables. This recipe was perfect -- a pork chop with a light sauce along with a beautiful salad.

My Tweak: I went with goat cheese instead of mozzarella in the salad. I love goat cheese and figs together. Also, I'll admit it -- I was lazy and used bottled balsamic vinaigrette.  

This soup is so flavorful thanks to the roasted tomatoes and copious amounts of garlic, rosemary, and sage, and it's hearty and filling thanks to the kale and the couscous.

My Tweak: I used israeli couscous instead of fregola because whose grocery store sells fregola? Not mine. I also opted for chicken stock over water for a richer soup, but if you prefer to keep it vegetarian, I wouldn't suggest doing that.
I can't get enough brussels sprouts. They're so delicious in this mustard apple cider sauce, that I swear it would make a believer of even the pickiest eater. 

My Tweak: I mixed half dijon and half whole grain mustard for a milder sauce -- dijon can be a bit too horseradishy for me.
The colors in this soup are beautiful, bacon is involved, and it's basically like fall in a bowl.  Serve it alongside some crusty, buttery sourdough bread, and you've got yourself a meal!

My Tweak: I had a bag of Rancho Gordo Yellow Eye Beans, so I decided to add those in.  You can use whatever dried beans you've got in your pantry.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Hike in The Fells

I enjoy Fall in New England as much as the next girl (who doesn't like apples, cider, and pumpkins?), but Summer is my one true love.   This Saturday, after weeks of chilly air and rain, we had a perfect Indian Summer day, and my heart swelled with happiness. Days that perfect require going outside and getting some fresh air, so we went for a hike in The Fells. It was the best of both worlds, really -- warmth and sunshine along with striking fall colors in the trees and dried leaves like confetti crunching underfoot.
The Fells encompasses 2,500 acres of natural, wooded reservation land outside of Boston full of hiking and mountain biking trails. So far, the Long Pond Trail is my favorite, but we didn't feel like driving over to Winchester, so Saturday we took the Cross Fells Trail with an entrance right down the street from our house in West Medford. 
Both trails are pretty easy hikes with some lovely scenery. If you ever want a nice picnic spot, pack up your picnic basket and head down the Long Pond Trail, where you can find a place to spread out a blanket in the shade with a view of the water.
New England can be a really wonderful place to live. Alas, the vibrant leaves are starting to fade and to fall to the forest floor, but I'll enjoy it as long as I can and stubbornly put off the realization that winter is around the corner.  When the bitter cold and snow arrives, it'll be time to hibernate. And time to drink lots of hot chocolate.

My Birthday Boy

 We had the most fun celebrating my husband's 28th birthday.
First, he flew us to Fitchburg, a bit west of Boston, to an airport diner for lunch. Basically, you fly to a little airport, pull into the airplane "parking lot", and walk up to the airport/diner. Model airplanes and other paraphernalia frequently lines the walls of restaurants like this, and they always include windows looking out over the runways. This is pretty close to heaven as far as my husband is concerned.  I got a patty melt, and he got biscuits and gravy with the most adorable smiley toast. After lunch, we flew back to Boston, enjoying the view of the fall foliage from the air.
I also took him for a nice dinner at Menton. This was, hands down, the nicest and most amazing dinner experience we've ever had. We began with glasses of champagne and then enjoyed everything from homemade bread, foie gras, sweetbreads to fresh truffle rissotto, swordfish, duck, and veal to pumpkin chiboust and chocolate parfait. Our head waitress (I think a team of 6 or so served us throughout the meal) was warm and friendly and very knowledgeable. She recommended wine pairings that were just perfect and even brought us a complimentary wine sample that she thought would be particularly good with one of our courses.
After our main course was served, our waitress asked if we would be interested in having our dessert course in a small private dining area with a window into the kitchen. I think we both almost squealed with delight and told her, "Absolutely!" So she guided us through the bustling kitchen to the cozy little private room. The manager came in, spoke with us, and narrated the kitchen activities for us. It was a mesmerizing glimpse into how a fine dining establishment runs.  Chefs worked together like a well-oiled machine, moving so quickly, while everyone remained calm and collected, most never speaking a word. My favorite was a chef making sauces in tiny individual-sized copper pots. Or maybe the plating section, so delicate and perfectly done.
From greasy-spoon airport diners to Boston fine dining, we really experienced a wonderful gamut this past weekend! I wouldn't have it any other way! Happy birthday, handsome!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Canning: Apple Butter

After having friends stay with us all last week and then giving visiting family a whirlwind tour of Boston on Saturday, I just wanted to stay home, stay in my pajamas all day, and putter around in the kitchen by the time Sunday rolled around.  

I have a standing offer from a friend in LA to do a canning swap: a jar of her canned peaches for a batch of apple butter, so I bit the bullet and finally tried my hand at canning using the last of our hand-picked apples.  And do you know what I found out? Canning, though a little time consuming, really isn't very hard. It was a lot of fun, and it left me feeling quite accomplished, like a good little Suzy Homemaker.

I used two blogs (The Kitchenette and Food in Jars) to come up with a recipe and to guide me in the canning process. Another fantastic resource I found was the Serious Eats Beginner's Guide to Canning

I used the following ingredients:

4 lbs apples (McIntosh and Macoun), cored and sliced
1 1/3 cups light brown sugar
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 lemon, juiced

First, I put the apples in a dutch oven, poured in enough water to just cover the bottom of the pan, and cooked over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until the apples were soft and breaking apart.
Once the apples were softened, I pureed them with an immersion blender (a food mill or food processor would work too). Then I added sugar, spices, honey, and the lemon juice for a bit of acidity.
Once everything was stirred in, I cooked the apple butter over low heat for about 3 hours.
Toward the end of the cooking time I sterilized my jars by placing them in a large stock pot, covered them with water, placed the lid on the pot, and brought it to a boil. I put a steamer basket in the bottom to keep the jars from sitting on the bottom of the pot. To soften the sealing compound on the lids, I brought water in a saucepan to a very gentle simmer (not a boil) and dropped in the lids for a few minutes.
Once the jars were sterilized and the lids are ready, I used salad tongs (I don't have the proper canning tools) to lift the jars out of the water. I ladled apple butter into the jars, leaving about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of headroom, and then wiped the mouth of each jar with a clean towel to remove any stray apple butter. Using salad tongs again, I removed the lids from the saucepan and placed them on the jars. I then screwed the rings on to hold the lids in place.
I placed the filled jars back in the stock pot (after removing some water) and brought the water back to a boil. I let them boil for about 15 minutes and then removed them to a clean towel.
A few minutes into the cooling process, I heard little pings as the lids sealed shut. I let them cool for the rest of the evening until they were room temperature. At this point, I removed the rings and tried picking the jars up by the lid, using my fingertips, to see if the lid stayed on. It worked! Like magic, the jars had sealed, so I screwed the rings back on and found the jars a little spot in my pantry.

Ta da! Finished jars of apple butter!
Now, if you don't feel like doing the all-out canning process, you can still make and enjoy apple butter.  Just ladle it into a clean jar. Once it cools, store it in the fridge, and it should be good for a few weeks.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

My go-to recipe for football games, cookouts, TexMex dinner parties, random Thursdays, etc. is my Roasted Tomatillo Salsa. When I moved away from Texas and had serious salsa cravings, I learned just how easy it is to make at home as long as you have the following key items:
  1. A food processor (or an immersion blender)
  2. A grocery store that carries tomatillos (this isn't a given in New England -- when they do have them, I always baffle the poor checkout person who inevitably asks "what ARE these??")
Homemade salsa is roughly one million times better than jarred salsa, and it always "wows" guests.  So without further ado, here's my salsa recipe! (based loosely off of Homesick Texan's Tomatillo Salsa)

1 lb tomatillos, husked (if they're fairly large, I also cut them in half)
2 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
2 serrano chiles
1/4 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 lime, juiced
1/4 tsp ground cumin (optional)
salt to taste

Turn on broiler to High 

Place garlic cloves in a piece of foil, drizzle in a little olive oil, and wrap foil around the garlic

Place tomatillos, serranos, and foil-wrapped garlic cloves on a foil-lined baking sheet (this makes cleanup WAY easier)

Place under the broiler for 8-10 minutes, until tomatillos and peppers are blackened.

Flip tomatillos and peppers and broil for 8-10 minutes, to blacken the other side

Meanwhile, take chopped onion, cilantro, lime juice, and cumin  and toss them into the bowl of a large food processor

When tomatillos, garlic, and peppers are done, remove the peppers from the baking sheet and place in a ziplock bag (the steam in the bag will loosen the charred skin to facilitate peeling)

Scrape tomatillos and any juices on the baking sheet into the food processor along with the unwrapped, peeled garlic cloves

After a few minutes, remove the peppers from the plastic baggie, chop off the stems, peel off the skin, and remove seeds (if desired -- I usually leave them in for a spicier salsa). Add them to the food processor as well

Turn on food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and add salt to taste


Note: I think the salsa is better on day #2, so I usually make it a day before I intend to serve it to anyone. If you notice that your salsa thickens up too much overnight, just add a bit of water to loosen it up before serving

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Around Kendall Square

We have house-guests this week, so between hanging out with our guests, our anniversary, other friends visiting, and busy schedules, we've been going out to eat a lot more than we usually do. I miss cooking our nightly dinners, but at least I've gotten to try some cool new (to me, anyway) spots!

First, I happened upon a coffee shop called Voltage Coffee and Art. I arrived at Kendall Square about an hour before I was supposed to meet friends for dinner.  I saw that Voltage Coffee was on the way to the restaurant, so to kill some time, I stopped in for coffee. I didn't expect anything special, but something special was what I found. They serve espressos and pour-over coffee made with beans from local roasters. They have the most creative (and crazy) latte menu I've ever seen. They serve local loose leaf teas. And to top it all off, the colorful walls are lined with art and photography by nearby artists. This place is cool. Really cool.

I got a steaming mug of pourover coffee made with Ethiopian beans. I don't know what it is about this method of brewing that gives the coffee so much flavor and texture, but it's a tangible difference. I found an open table and happily spent the next hour with my nose in a book.

I eventually headed down the street for dinner at Helmand.  It was a lovely, cozy restaurant with a warm and welcoming staff. We scanned the unfamiliar menu items (we were all new to Afghan cuisine) as they brought us baskets of flat bread served with three sauces: a yogurt mint sauce, a hot pepper sauce, and a cilantro sauce. My favorite was the cilantro, which could make even the driest cardboard taste good. 

The waiter was patient, smiling as we stumbled through pronouncing our orders. I opted for the Showla, which is a spinach and cheese-stuffed poblano pepper served with a side of rice baked with mung beans, black eyed peas, tomato, and onion. It reminded me of a Chile Relleno, but with such unique flavors. The baked rice and beans were actually the highlight of the dish -- this must be what Afghan comfort food is like. I loved Helmand and can't wait to go back and try more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hungry Mother

For our anniversary dinner, we decided to go back to an old favorite: Hungry Mother. It's a special restaurant to us. It was really our first "fine dining" experience. Still fresh college graduates at the time, we were absolutely bowled over by the quality of the food, the atmosphere, the presentation, the service, you name it. A few years later, we're still impressed.  They serve southern-inspired food prepared with French technique, and the results are nothing short of amazing.
(image from Hungry Mother website)

Water is served in mason jars (maybe a bit cliche, but I still like it). Homemade bread and plenty of butter are provided as you browse the menu.  Ingredients that invoke fond memories of eating at my grandmother's table pop out at me all through the menu: catfish, collard greens, field peas, okra, grits, it's all there.  These are southern favorites for a reason -- they're delicious! Hungry Mother maintains a seasonal menu that is always changing, so I can't really point you toward a particular "can't miss" item, but I'm pretty certain that there are no bad choices here.
Last night, we ordered glasses of bubbly and then started with catfish fritters served over a bed of slaw. They were crunchy, perfectly fried, with a light, whipped center, a good counterpoint to the fresh, slightly tart slaw.  My husband got chicken with chicken sausage, greens, grits and red eye gravy, but I'm pretty sure that I won the unspoken battle of the entrees with my catfish a la meuniere served over rice pilau, pecans, field peas, and green beans. I'm a such a sucker for catfish (even if it isn't cornmeal battered and deep fried a la East Texas). We wrapped things up by sharing a piece of buttermilk pie.
If only every Tuesday night could be an anniversary dinner!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Two Wonderful Years

Happy second anniversary to my sweet husband.
How have two years already gone by?
Surrounded by family and friends, we began a wonderful journey together, and boy has it been fun so far.  I can't wait to see where God takes us in the years to come! 
(all photos by Jami Birdsong Photography)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

It was a cool, drizzly weekend here in Boston, but we made the best of it!
Friday night, I made Butternut Squash and Apple Soup (adapted from the Pumpkin Apple Soup in How To Cook Everything) while my husband bottled his latest homebrew, a Pecan Porter.  I gingerly stepped over brewing equipment as I moved between my cutting board and the stove, but even when we're in each other's way, I love being in the kitchen together. I was as happy as a little clam. 
Saturday, we had friends arrive at our home who will be staying with us this week. That night, we had chips with queso and my roasted tomatillo salsa (I'll share this recipe in the near future) and homemade Carne Guisada before watching UT eek out a win over Oklahoma State.

Sunday, our friends took us to brunch at Temple Bar in Cambridge. We were seated in a cozy booth and brought a plate of the cutest little coffee cake squares and chocolate chip peanut butter muffins before ordering.  I couldn't pass up a mimosa and the Cowboy Omelette, stuffed with chorizo, roasted peppers, and onions. It was a bit onion heavy but still very good. My husband really picked the winner --a "Man-mosa" (Allagash White + OJ) and the Cinnamon Mascarpone-Stuffed French Toast with a Banana Rum Caramel Sauce. Yeah. I know. It was ridiculous. You should probably go check this place out.
That afternoon, I explored picturesque Winchester Center. My first stop was BookEndsa little bookstore I had driven by a million times, always thinking "Man, I really need to go in there sometime."  I poked around for a while, in heaven surrounded by so many books. I managed to come home with only two: The Night Circus and The Little Women Letters.
We wrapped things up with a little dinner party on Sunday night. Seven of us crowded around a table meant for six and dug into plates of cheese ravioli with lemon parmesan cream sauce and garlic bread (from Dave's Fresh Pasta) along with wine and the best pear, pecan, cranberry, bacon, and feta chopped salad, made by my friend Mailee.  We adjourned to the living room, women with their wine and the men with glasses of scotch (how cliche, right?), and spent the rest of the evening watching some Sunday Night Football.