Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Double Date at Trina's

Saturday night, we went out for dinner with our friend's Kevin and Andrea. We decided to check out Trina's Starlite Lounge in Somerville's Inman Square. After taking a craft cocktail class at The Boston Shaker, we've been making an effort to try more cocktail places around town, and Trina's gets nothing but rave reviews for both their food and their drinks. Now I know why!

If you are within a reasonable driving distance, you should probably get in your car right now and get there as quickly as possible. Better yet, hop in a friend's car and let them drive so you can enjoy more than one cocktail!

Once we were seated in their little dining area, I ordered a Natale a Padua with gin, a little citrus, herby rosemary, and a good dose of bubbly. It was perfect.  Trina's owner, Josh Childs, posted the recipe on his cocktail blog, Straight Up, and I can't wait to try it at home. And then try it again at Trina's. My husband got the Expatriate with scotch and black walnut bitters and was equally impressed.
For dinner, we started with their homemade tater tots, crispy and starchy and so much better than the frozen variety, served alongside truffle ketchup. Honestly, I might prefer them with plain ol' ketchup, but who am I to complain about truffles?  Next, I ordered the macaroni and cheese made with spansih chorizo, buttery Ritz cracker crumbs, and (according to the menu) love. My husband got the chicken and waffles, topped with a fantastic hot pepper syrup, while our friends got fries and chili dogs overflowing with homemade chili and melted cheese. This menu is casual comfort food done perfectly.

I'm already trying to figure out the next possible opportunity to go back to Trina's. It's definitely one of my new favorite spots around town!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dueling Cheese Straws

One of my "go to" party snacks are homemade cheese straws, mainly because the wow factor to difficulty ratio is pretty high. That, and because they taste really good. So when I was planning Ashleigh's baby shower, I knew they would be on the menu.

However, as I was browsing for ideas, I came across a completely different twist (no pun intended) on cheese straws, courtesy of Joy the Baker. Mine, in all their flaky, cheesy, buttery glory, are a bit rustic, while hers are twirly, light, and elegant.  I was torn. Which should I make for the shower? Being the indecisive person that I am, I had my cake (or cheese straws?) and ate it too. I made them both, because really, this is a duel where both sides win.
Cheese Straws #1
(Based on a recipe from my friend Agnes)

2 sticks of butter, softened and cut into a few pieces
2 c flour
2 c pepper jack cheese, grated
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
pinch of salt
2 tsp light cream (or water if you don't feel like buying a 
whole container of cream just to use a measly 2 teaspoons)

Preheat the oven to 350.

Dump grated cheese and softened butter into the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse until combined.

Add flour, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and light cream to the mix, and pulse until the dough begins to clump. 

(You can do the previous two steps by hand if you have a wooden spoon, a bowl, 
and some elbow grease)

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, form it into a disk, and roll it out until it's about 1/4 inch thick. Using a floured knife or pizza cutter, slice into 3 by 1 inch rectangles, and place onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (or use a Silpat mat).

Prick each cracker a couple times with a fork, and bake for 15 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and let them cool on cooling racks.

Feel free to make these a day or two in advance if needed. They should keep for a few days.

Cheese Straws #2

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 tsp hot sauce (I used regular Tabasco)
a dash of water
1/3 cup asiago cheese, finely grated
1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, finely grated
1 Tb chives, minced
2 Tb thyme, minced
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375.

Remove the puff pastry sheet from its packaging onto a lightly floured surface, and roll it out a bit in all directions. 

Add the hot sauce and just a dash of water to the beaten egg and brush it over the surface of the pastry. Then sprinkle the pastry with your cheeses, herbs, and a good sprinkle of salt and pepper (I used sea salt and a mix of freshly ground black and white peppercorns)

Using a rolling pin, gently press the cheese and herbs into the dough by rolling over the surface of the pastry a few times.

With a floured knife, cut the pastry sheet into long thin strips, about 1/2 inch wide. 

Begin twisting each strip, starting from the middle and working your way to the top and then to the bottom, such that all of the cheesy herby goodness is wrapped up in the middle. (don't worry, you'll loose a little bit of the stuffing, but you'll still have plenty on the inside where it counts)

Lay each twist on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (or use a Silpat mat), leaving some room between each one. Bake for about 14 minutes, until golden.

For the best results, serve on the same day you make them. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hosting a Baby Shower

This weekend, I co-hosted a baby shower for our sweet due-any-day-now friend, Ashleigh. We had the most fun planning, cooking, and decorating (and then eating and catching up with girlfriends). 

My favorite part about hosting a shower is planning the menu. I try to have a savory table and a dessert table full of little finger foods. Mailee and I teamed up for the savory table, and we came up with a spread of  Cheese Crackers, Cheese Straws, Crab and Fontina-Stuffed Mushrooms, Sugared Pecans, Bacon Pops, Fruit Skewers, and Apple, Apricot Jam, and Goat Cheese Puff Pastry Tarts. We decorated the table with linens, fresh flowers, bright patterned napkins, and some of our favorite serving pieces.
Liz, a wizard when it comes to sweets, was in charge of the dessert table, and she blew everyone away with her Lemon Bundt Cake (topped with the cutest tiny bunting), white chocolate-covered popcorn, white chocolate-drizzled pretzels, and frosted sugar cookies.
I tried to pick drinks that would match our color scheme, so we had Citrus Cucumber Water and Blueberry Lemon Italian Sodas (homemade blueberry lemon syrup + club soda) served in mason jars with striped paper straws (this is one trend that I hope never goes out of style). Liz designed and created the onesie bunting which was so adorable that I didn't want to take it down after the shower.
Finally, 2:00 rolled around. All of the food was out, decorations were hung, the kitchen was cleaned up (ok, so a few dirty dishes were hidden out of sight in the cabinets), and it was time for guests to arrive!
After everyone had a chance to eat, drink, and catch up, Ashleigh opened her presents, which is always an educating experience for us non-mothers. The item that got the biggest "Awwwww" was a little WubbaNub pacifier, which was just precious!
Finally, after lots of hugs and goodbyes, we handed out favors (boxes tied up with ribbon and filled with animal crackers dipped in chocolate and sprinkles, courtesy of some messy work by Mailee and her husband), and folks headed home. It was such a lovely afternoon for an even lovelier friend and mother-to-be.  I can't wait to meet little Baby Noah! 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to Host a Crafty Girl's Night

Sometimes you just need a night to hang out with the girls, whether it's for mani/pedis, a book club, a night out on the town, or a movie night with a bottle of wine. A couple years ago, a group of girlfriends and I realized that we all shared an interest in crafting.  A stroke of brilliance led to the idea of doing a Crafty Girl's Night every so often.  It's a great excuse to get together, catch up, work on a project, and share tips and ideas. We've found that a successful evening really boils down to 5 key things:

1) Crafty projects
Each guest brings their own project to work on, whether it be crochet, knitting, embroidery, jewelry making, cross-stitch, you name it. Here are a few on my to-do list:

2) Comfy seating
Whether it's arm chairs, a couch or two, ottomans, throw pillows and blankets on the floor, or any other seating option you can dream up, it's nice for each person to have a perch where they can settle in and comfortably work on their project.

3) Snacks
As far as I'm concerned (it's probably due to my Southern Baptist upbringing), you can't have a gathering of folks without having a good spread of food! Just try not to get crumbs in your yarn.

4) Gossip and a good selection of girly movies
A good dose of gossip and a girly movie playing in the background (preferably a favorite that everyone loves and has seen a million times because sometimes girl talk trumps movie dialogue) make any get-together more fun. Feel free to borrow some of my favorites:
1: Center Stage, 2: Julie & Julia, 3: Sabrina (the 1995 version, of course), 4: The Princess Bride, 5: The Cutting Edge, 6: Singin' in the Rain

5) Wine!
Last, but definitely not least, is wine. This one (decidedly not due to my Southern Baptist upbringing) is usually a must. However, there are plenty of other beverage options that could be fun: an assortment of hot teas, cocktails, sangria, hot cocoa, etc.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Surprise Visit to Buffalo

Seven years ago this month, I moved to France.  To be completely cliche, it was a dream come true. During my six months as a student, I traveled, practiced my French, wrote in my journal at cafes while sipping espresso, studied, learned to love cooking, and my passion for food was born. It wasn't always the perfect ideal I had imagined, but it was a wonderful experience.

Now, what on earth does France have to do with a visit to Buffalo? Well, I began the program knowing none of my fellow students, but I quickly bonded with Joseph and Nate. We became rather inseparable and dubbed ourselves "The Trio." We still remain close friends despite our scattered geographical locations, and this weekend, Joseph, my husband, and I finally made our first visit to Buffalo to surprise Nate and his fiancee, Kate!
We had the best time in Buffalo, and Nate and Kate were great tour guides. The city was not at all what I imagined, with inviting local shops and restaurants, parks, striking architecture downtown, and plenty of character. Best of all, the weekend was unseasonably warm, in the 60s each day. In January. In Buffalo!

I had the largest mug of coffee I've ever been served at Spot Coffee in Elmwood Village. Old Editions Book Shop was heavenly with endless shelves of used books.  Breakfast sitting outside of Ashker's Juice Bar was light and refreshing.We sampled beautiful made-to-order cupcakes at Zillycakes.   A short drive over the Canadian border brought us to magnificent views of Niagara Falls, enjoyed over cups of Tim Horton's coffee for the full Canadian experience.

We devised a plan for a "wing crawl" Saturday evening, eating as many wings as we could manage while imbibing the local favorite, Labatt Blue. My favorite wings were hands-down the Hot wings at Duffs, crispy and saucy, inducing just enough mouth tingle. I could have eaten those bad boys all night. Before heading home, we spent our last couple hours playing with their puppy, Stout, at a dog park overlooking the expansive Lake Erie shoreline.
The best part of the weekend was catching up with friends who are like adopted family.  Thankfully we'll get to see them all again (and to eat more wings) in July for Nate and Kate's wedding! And if you've ever wondered if Niagara Falls is worth the trip, my vote is an unequivocal "yes."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Potato Leek Soup with Bacon Crumbles

It's nothing flashy or glamorous, but Potato Leek Soup is one of my favorite soups. It's simple, it's creamy, it's a cinch to make, and you can stir bacon crumbles into it. What's not to like? Grab a glass of wine and some warm crusty bread (after all, you'll need something to mop up any last remains of soup...spoons can only do so much), and you've got yourself a well-balanced meal.
2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
2 leeks, trimmed of green portion and roots, halved, and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3-4 pieces of bacon, sliced
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup water
1 bay leaf
pinch of thyme
salt and pepper to taste

In a dutch oven or soup pot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Scoop out excess bacon grease, leaving about 1 Tb in the bottom of the pot.

Add leeks and garlic to the pot and season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, until softened.

Add potatoes, chicken broth, water, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until potatoes are soft.

Remove bay leaf and then puree soup with an immersion blender (I usually do this in a separate bowl) or food processor, and return to the pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve topped with bacon crumbles.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Roasted Butternut Squash & Brussels Sprouts Quinoa Salad with Cranberries, Pepitas, and Honey Clementine Dressing

We made our "post-Christmas restocking" grocery store run last night, so our fridge and pantry are no longer bare after two weeks in Texas. Wanting to cook something lighter yet still satisfying, I came across a beautiful recipe for butternut squash and quinoa salad that sounded perfect. I had some brussels sprouts from the Medford Winter Farmer's Market just begging to be roasted, so I decided to  throw those in as well A few brussels sprouts never hurt anybody.

Granted, as my cattle rancher dad would probably say, "You know, this would go really great with a steak." So if vegetarian meals aren't your thing, this would make a great side dish as well. Either way, it's a winning combination of roasted vegetables, just enough sweet from the cranberries and Honey Clementine Dressing, a little crunch from the pepitas, and quinoa to help it stick to your ribs.
Serves 4

1/2 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced into 1/2-in cubes
1 lb brussels sprouts, stems and outer leaves removed and halved
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 c quinoa
2 c water
1/2 c dried cranberries
1/2 cup pepitas

Honey Clementine Dressing:
2 large clementines, zested and juiced
2 Tb olive oil
1/2 Tb honey 
(If you live in MA, the local Carlisle Raw Spring Blossom Honey is wonderful)
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F. Drizzle the butternut squash and brussels sprouts with olive oil, toss to coat. Spread them out on a baking sheet and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, until tender

While the butternut squash and brussels sprouts are roasting, cook the quinoa. Bring the water and 1/4 tsp salt to a boil. Add quinoa, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, until water is absorbed (or cook according to package directions). Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.

Whisk together the clementine juice, zest, olive oil, and honey and then season with salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, butternut squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, and pepitas. Drizzle dressing over the salad (I used about half of the dressing above, but you can use more or less depending on your preference). Toss until ingredients are well dressed. Season with more salt and pepper if needed, and serve.

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's Christmas Time in Texas

How do I begin to recap two weeks in my home state of Texas for the Christmas holidays? I guess I'll just dive right in.

After arrival at DFW, we drove across the gently rolling expanse of hay bale-dotted pastureland that is East Texas.  Just when you think you've surely landed yourself in the middle of nowhere, you find my hometown, Paris. At home, family was in the living room, the tree was up, berries and garland lined the mantle, little gingerbread men were standing sentry on the kitchen counters, and lights twinkled outside. After hugs all around, we were  handed coffee and Christmas cookies and directed to a seat. We were home.
We spent the days watching Christmas movies, playing games, chatting with family, wrapping presents, cooking, and eating. My brother's bird, Mia, called to us as we cooked, usually shamelessly asking for treats. We spent an afternoon baking pecan cookies at Papa and Grandmom's with real Texas pecans, and I got to catch up with my friend Alison over coffee.

Between homemade tamales, chicken fried steak, two trips out for TexMex, Mom's gingerbread doughnuts,  my brother's delicious sausage balls for Christmas Brunch, Cranberry Orange Cake, turducken (yeah, we tried it) and gumbo, and smoked turkey and cornbread dressing for Christmas Dinner, we ate like kings. 
Here's our annual Christmas Eve family photo. Papa and Grandmom always insist that we take one. There are always protestations when it's first brought up, no one can ever decide where we're going to pose, there's generally confusion over who stands where, the first few shots are always terrible because no one is ready, and finally we end up with a deceptively effortless-looking photo that we'll treasure in the years to come. 
Best of all, we got my very first white Christmas this year! It began snowing on Christmas morning and continued into the evening. The next day, the whole world glistening with snow. Even for snow-weary New England residents, it was quite a thrill!
The day after Christmas, we headed south to Austin (Lakeway to be exact). After about 7 hours, a few detours, lots of farm land, and a mandatory stop at Whataburger, we arrived. Again we were greeted by a house full of family, and this time there were boxes full of Rudy's BBQ and tins full of homemade Christmas sweets.
We took a day trip to Shiner to visit the Spoetzl (Shiner) Brewery and stopped in Lockhart for some of Smitty's famed BBQ. We visited The Oasis to see the sun set over Lake Travis. At Grammy and Pampa's we watched football and played cards around the kitchen table. We watched movies, caught up on the family gossip, filled up on pepperoni rolls at Double Dave's, bought too many books at Half Price Books, and ate even more TexMex.

We spent New Year's Eve in downtown Austin with our friends Jimmy and Laura, kicking things off with craft cocktails at the very stylish Peche. Next was a Beer Pairing Feast at the wonderful Black Star Co-Op, the stars of the show being their beers, a beautiful rib-eye and a big bowl of fried black eyed peas -- so crunchy and with a little kick. We spent the rest of 2012 enjoying pints of Texas beer at one of our favorite old haunts, The Ginger Man
New Year's Day started on the right foot with Texas Chili Parlor's mouth-singeing chili in a bowl of Frito Pie. Back in Lakeway, we spent our last evening enjoying quite a feast, complete with black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year.

Now here we are back in Boston, ready to begin what I think will be a wonderful 2013!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from me and mine to you and yours! 

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year is off to a good start.  Did you eat your black-eyed peas for good luck? We sure did! I can't wait to share the high points of our two weeks in Texas with our families! We had such a wonderful time, but it's good to be back home (despite the frigid cold).