Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

Wishing everyone a wonderful Easter!
(Easter Card from Rifle Paper Co)
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here..." Mark 16:6

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Visitors from the Left Coast

As I've mentioned already, we had guests this weekend, all the way from LA.  This was our friends' second trip to Boston but their first since I moved here, so my husband and I were so excited to show them around this great city and New England. It's impossible to squeeze everything we love into one weekend, but we did out best to hit some of our favorites.

Our first official stop on Friday was lunch at Sam LaGrassa's for sandwiches heaped in their delicious Rumanian Pastrami and Vermont cheddar. If heaven were between two pieces of bread, this might be it.
Once we were stuffed full of pastrami, we made our way to Cambridge to visit MIT, where my husband is currently studying. We paused for a drink at their campus bar, The Muddy Charles, before moving a little ways up the Red Line to Harvard Square. At LA Burdick, we got steaming cups of their unbelievably rich single source hot chocolates. As our guests aptly observed, "It's like drinking a melted chocolate bar!"  With our hot chocolate to keep us warm, we wandered over to Hahvahd Yahhd to see their lovely campus and to rub John Harvard's toe, shiny gold from generations of hands seeking good luck!
A little further down the Red Line in Davis Square, we stopped at The Boston Shaker to sample bitters and then poked around Dave's Fresh Pasta. We couldn't decide on just one flavor of their fresh ravioli to bring home, so we went with three: roasted chicken, portobello mushroom, and cheese. Topped with their tomato mascarpone sauce and served with marinated olives and a loaf of their homemade garlic bread, we had quite a spread on our hands.

After dinner, we made our way to the NERAX Cask Beer Festival. Held at the decrepit Somerville American Legion Building, it wasn't the fanciest event, but the wide range of beers (all on cask) and the company made for a fine evening.
It's sugaring season in New England, so Saturday morning we drove up to Mason, NH for a tour of the Parker's Maple Barn Sugar House. We learned all about the syrup-making process, from tapping trees to determining the syrup grade once it comes out of the evaporator, fueled by a giant roaring fire.  They also  serve what is supposed to be an amazing breakfast, but sadly we went without breakfast or maple syrup due to a TWO HOUR wait at the restaurant. Maybe next time!
At this point, we were starving.  My husband came to the rescue, knowing a sandwich spot,  Mill No. 3 Farmstand, that sounded perfect. From the parking lot, it's just a wooden barn of a building with an attached greenhouse -- somewhere you would shop for produce and gardening supplies. But tucked away in the back, is a chalk board menu and a deli counter advertising sandwiches, salads, and soups! Everything is served in the cutest little baskets, so you can carry your meal out to a table in their sunny greenhouse, and it really hit the spot. Next, we toured the ever-growing Wachusett Brewery. Unlike Sam Adams and Harpoon, they're a little outside of the city, but these folks are worth a visit (or two). After our tour of the brewing facility and a few samples, we filled up a growler and headed back to town.
We watched March Madness games at home to rest up a bit until it was time for dinner and cocktails at Eastern Standard.  It's our favorite restaurant in Boston, and we couldn't wait to share it with Jimmy and Laura. The food, the drinks, the atmosphere -- it feels like stepping back in time into an inviting and bustling brasserie.  My favorite drink of the evening was a tart and citrusy Greenfly with Chartreuse and gin. After dinner we moved the party home for some homemade cocktails and a few rounds of Jenga.
Sunday we slept in a bit before bracing ourselves against the cold for a spot in line for Highland Kitchen's brunch.  Finally we snagged a table, where we ordered plenty of coffee, brunch cocktails, and way too much food. The boys got Dirty Birds, biscuits topped with bacon, a fried egg, and fried chicken all smothered in gravy. I got the smoked trout and bacon hash with collard greens, as I usually do. It's a quirky place that brings a touch of the south to New England. Where else can you eat collard greens with a bluegrass band in the corner?
Back at home for the afternoon, we spent a little time enjoying the beautiful (though still cold) day. We scraped snow off the picnic table and sipped on homebrew while the boys smoked cigars.
For their final evening, we headed to the historic, narrow streets of the North End. We strolled through the neighborhood, admired the skyline from the Rose Kennedy Greenway, said hello to the Paul Revere statue in front of The Old North Church, and then stepped into the cozy, slightly cramped dining room at Al Dente. Now, to me, if any place feels like Boston, it's this place. The waiters are local Italians with thick Boston accents. They're helpful and friendly while busting your chops a little bit at the same time. The portions are beyond generous, there's homemade pasta, and I don't think there's a bad choice on the menu.  After dinner, we managed to find a little room for a cannoli from Modern Pastry, because what's a trip to the North End without a cannoli?
Despite the bitter cold and lingering snow, we had a good time catching up and showing them around. Dark and early Monday morning, we bid our friends farewell.  They're back on the warmer west coast, and things are back to normal around here. We've almost survived another work week, and we're finally starting to see signs of Spring. Hopefully everyone has a wonderful Easter weekend!

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Welcome to Boston" Apricot Buttermilk Scones

This weekend, our good friends Jimmy and Laura visited from Los Angeles.  We met as students at UT Austin, and then after graduation, Jimmy was one of my many roommates while living in LA. This was their first trip to Boston since I moved from LA, so we were thrilled to see them and to show them around this city we've come to love so much (despite the interminable winters).

I wanted to have a a few home-cooked treats in the house to welcome them to town, so I made one of my favorites dips (Roasted Jalapeno and Lime Hummus) for snacking and baked a batch of apricot scones for breakfast. Having buttermilk left from making Irish Soda Bread and Lemon Chess Pie last week, I based my recipe on Joy the Baker's buttermilk scones. They turned out well, flaky and buttery. This recipe can be varied countless ways (replace the apricot and orange zest with raisins, apple and cinnamon, cheddar and jalapeno, bacon crumbles, cranberries and orange zest, you name it), but simple apricot scones are my favorite!
1 1/2 c flour
2 Tb sugar
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp orange zest (I used a Cara Cara orange)
6 Tb cold unsalted butter
1/2 c dried apricots, diced
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup + 3 Tb buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425

In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Cut butter into "pats" and add, with the orange zest, to the dry ingredients. Using a pastry blender (or two knives criss-crossing together. Or heck, your hands), cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse, crumbly corn meal.

Add dried apricots and stir until evenly distributed.

Lightly whisk the egg yolk and stir into the buttermilk. Add gradually to the dry ingredients, stirring until the dough just comes together. About halfway through I switch to using my hands to bring the dough together, pulling in remaining loose crumbs. 
(If your dough won't come together, just add in a little more buttermilk gradually until it does.)

When dough is pulled together into a ball, lay it on a floured work surface, and roll it out into a round disk, about 1 inch thick. Using a floured knife, cut the dough into six triangles.

Lay the scones on a Silpat (or foil or parchment paper) lined baking sheet. Brush the tops with buttermilk, and bake for about 12 minutes, until the edges turn golden.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cocktails, Coffee, and Restaurant Week

Spring is here at last, but someone forgot to tell New England.  We celebrated the last official day of winter with yet another big snow storm, and we're expecting more snow tonight.  Our family and friends in Texas are already basking in sunny warmth and spring wildflowers. But here in Boston? It's the end of March, and it's still snowing.
There is one silver lining here, though. Work was canceled on Tuesday thanks to snow!  We had dinner plans with friends in the city that evening, so knowing we would have to face the elements regardless, we bundled up and made our way into town a little early for pre-dinner cocktails at Drink   The walk from South Station was brutal; we were battered by wind, snow, and sleet.  But once we stepped into Drink, ditched our wet coats, and sidled up to the bar, we knew that it was well worth the walk.

I've raved about Drink before, and I'll probably rave about it again.  I just haven't found another spot like it.  We snacked on pimento cheese with toasted sourdough and let a few rounds of drinks warm us up from the inside out. My favorite was The Martinez, a gin and sweet vermouth cocktail, a predecessor to the martini, that I've been trying to make at home lately (theirs blew mine out of the water).
Next door to Drink is a coffee shop, Barrington Coffee, serving coffee and espresso brewed from beans that they roast themselves,right here in Massachusetts (Lee, MA to be exact). We stopped in for a pick-me-up before dinner. I ordered the espresso with milk and was tickled pink by the pretty foam art. Beneath the pretty foam was a delicious cup of coffee.
The snow had finally stopped as we made our way to dinner. A group of friends invited us to join them at Mistral for Boston Restaurant Week, going on right now from March 17-22 and March 24-29. If you've yet to participate, it's a great opportunity to try out many of Boston's nicest restaurants at reduced prices.  You choose from a three course Prix Fixe menu for $38 per person. While prices went up this year (from $33) it's still a good deal, and it's a fun excuse to get dressed up for a night on the town.
This was our second trip to Mistral, and we enjoyed it just as much as our first visit.  For my three courses, I chose the mushroom bisque, a roasted cornish game hen, and the meyer lemon pot de creme. We split a bottle of wine amongst the group and sampled bites here and there across the table. The bisque, served in an adorable individual soup tureen, was rich and comforting -- ideal for a snowy night. The cornish game hen was spatchocked with tender meat and perfectly crisp skin.  The meyer lemon dessert, pairing sweet with tart, brought the meal to a nice close.

Now here we are on Thursday, almost through another week. This evening, we have very good friends coming into town that will be staying with us for the weekend. They're visiting from LA, and I can't wait to see them and to show them around Boston!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Making Weekly Meal Plans

I used to be pretty haphazard when it came to planning meals, and I found that I was going to the store multiple times a week or, more frequently, resorting to take-out. Given how much I love cooking, I wanted to find a less exhausting and frustrating way to try new recipes and to get dinner on the table each night.  I began making a concerted effort to plan and stick to weekly menus. Some weeks I'm better at it than others, but I have finally come up with a system that works for me.

1) Find A Routine

I go to the store on Mondays after work. Over the weekend, I choose recipes for the week since I have extra time to poke around the internet and my cookbooks. It helps me to have this weekly routine, and it cuts down on trips to the store. Find a routine that works for you, and try to stick with it.

2) Choose Recipes Wisely

When it comes to choosing recipes, my rules of thumb are:
  • Go for Variety: It's hard to know what you'll be hungry for in advance, so try for variety: vegetarian, meaty, pasta, soups, etc. Then during the week, you can swap around meals based on what you're in the mood for.
  • Pay Attention to Cooking Time: I'm not overly ambitious during the week. I keep my lengthier recipes for weekends and pick simple recipes for Mondays, as I'm usually tired after my trip to the store. If there's a night where I won't have time to cook at all, I try to pick a recipe for earlier in the week that will provide leftovers for those busier nights.
3) Write Down the Plan

Ok, great! We have a plan, but now what? I use Google Calendar to keep track of what I'm going to cook each night. I make a calendar entry for each day, including the link to the recipe or what cookbook it's from. As an added bonus, this allows me to browse my calendar archives when I'm low on inspiration OR when I think "Oh man, what was that casserole I made last winter?"

If you're into crafty projects, I also love the idea of creating your own weekly menu board, like these cute and functional chalkboards. Anything that helps keep you inspired and organized (and makes your kitchen prettier) is a good thing.
(photos from Life (Sweet) Life and W+S)

4) Keep a Grocery List

I keep an easily accessible grocery list, and I try to list items in the order that they are kept in the store to minimize zigging and zagging all over. Maybe you like the old fashioned way with pen and paper. If that's your style, try to find a cute notepad that you can dedicate to grocery lists.
(Notepad from Rifle Paper Co)

I also use an app called Out of Milk. I add items via their website or phone app, and then at the store, I can pull up my list on my phone and check off items as I go. You can even share lists, so both my husband and I can add items, and we can divide and conquer if we're both at the store.

5) Keep Track of What You Have

Another useful trick is keeping stock of what you have hidden away in your refrigerator, pantry, or freezer. If you know you have a head of broccoli on its last legs or chicken breasts stashed in the freezer, it can help steer your plans. It also helps prevent forgotten foods from going bad. I try to keep an up-to-date list in my phone. Others use dry-erase boards or chalk boards in the kitchen, erasing items as they use them.
(Sliding Barn Door Pantry photo from The Kitchn)

6) Make a Default Grocery List

In case of emergency, I keep a "default grocery list". Because sometimes you just don't have time to search through recipes. For those weeks, you'll already have a grocery list to pick and choose from! 

Brainstorm some of you favorite, minimum hassle recipes, and list them in a Word document, a note on your phone, a paper list in your purse, whatever works for you. For each recipe, I include the name, the source (link/cookbook), and the ingredient list.

If you're in need of ideas, here are some of my favorites:
1. Beef and Snow Peas from Pioneer Woman, 2. Ginger and Cilantro Baked Tilapia from Serious Eats, 3. Black Bean Sweet Potato Chili from Serious Eats, 4. Black Bean Sweet Potato Tacos from Joy the Baker, 5. Pinto Beans from Homesick Texan and cornbread, 6. Fish in Foil Packets from The Kitchn

Other simple ideas are rotisserie chickens served with frozen veggies and whatever grain or starch is in the pantry (couscous, wild rice, quinoa), tacos (plain ol' ground beef or breakfast tacos with scrambled eggs, jalapeno, cilantro, and cheese), or salad topped with some vegetables and stick-to-your-ribs proteins (hard-boiled egg, cheese, canned beans, nuts, canned tuna, etc).

7) Try To Be Flexible

I struggle with this the most, but try to stay flexible. Some nights I am so exhausted that I can't even think about lifting a wooden spoon to cook. Other nights we get unexpectedly invited to dinner with friends. Try to cut yourself some slack and enjoy those moments instead of clinging to your meal plan for dear life. After all, cooking is supposed to be fun! Life tends to be a moving target, and it's impossible to plan every single moment (try as I might).

Sunday, March 17, 2013

It's Not Easy Being Green

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Boston! Though the parade and Irish Pubs are raging in Southie, it's pretty quiet out in the suburbs. Yesterday, I made a loaf of Irish Soda Bread, cutting the butter into the flour, sprinkling in a handful of raisins, and gradually adding in buttermilk until the dough just came together. It baked up a lovely golden brown and filled the house with the smell of freshly baked bread. Today I'm wearing green and am celebrating my Irish heritage by making a batch of Potato Leek Soup, since there's no potato famine in sight. 
In case you're still looking to add a little green to your life, here are some of my favorite colorful housewares from around the web. 

How about a little espresso to go along with that soda bread? This Green Coffee Pot from Anthropologie is too cute and would look great perched on the stove top year-round.
I've had my eye on these little Fleur-de-Lys glasses, also from Anthropologie, for quite a while now.
When serving up a big Irish dinner, these Ross Lab salt and pepper cellars would add a nice little pop of green to the table.
Just think how lovely a bouquet of spring flowers would be in this vase by Jill Rosenwald for a St. Patrick's Day brunch!
Maybe Guinness isn't your thing, and you just want to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea, using this adorable green tea mug cozy from Knit Storm. 
For mixing up cocktails (maybe with Irish Whiskey), I would love to have a set of these stylish hand-blown Zafferano green coupe glasses.
If none of these tickle your fancy, you can always go for a pint of green beer! 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lemon Chess Pie

Happy Pi Day, folks! To celebrate, everyone brought pies to work today (one of the perks of being a nerdy engineer). I wanted to show these New Englanders a taste of the South, so I made Lemon Chess Pie.  Basically a Buttermilk Pie (or Chess Pie) with lemon zest and lemon juice in place of vanilla, it's a cinch to pull together. If you're not a fan of buttermilk, please don't be tempted to dismiss this pie. You would never know it's in there!

Once baked, the pie has a beautiful, golden-brown crust hiding a delicate, rich custard with a little spring in its step from the tangy lemon.  It's a little taste of home that anyone (even a Yankee) can enjoy!
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), very soft
2 cups sugar
3 Tb flour
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
zest of one lemon
1 Tb lemon juice (~1/4 lemon)
1 9-in refrigerated pie crust
(or even better, homemade pie crust)

Preheat oven to 350

Place your pie crust into a pie pan, pressing it flat against the bottom and sides. Fold the extra edges over, and crimp. Place the pie pan in the refrigerator until you're ready to pour in your filling.

Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream your butter and sugar.

Add flour and eggs, beat well. 

Stir in buttermilk, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Pour into your unbaked pie crust. 

Bake for about 1 hour. Start checking it after about 50 minutes, until the custard is set and a nice crust forms on top. (Sometimes I bake mine as long as 1 hour and 10 minutes)

Cool on a wire rack. 

(With a pie this good, it's unlikely that you'll have leftovers, but on the off chance that you have a piece or two leftover, store it in the refrigerator)

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Very Busy Weekend

Somehow, it's already Monday again, so to ease the beginning of a new week, let's reminisce about the weekend!

Friday brought a fresh blanket of snow. I usually play the "I'm a Texan who can't drive in snow" card and work from home on these days, but because of a big meeting, I braved the whirling snow and icy roads. It's a small miracle that I made it to work in one piece, despite literally sliding down a hill at one point. The snow eventually stopped, and when I got home, I FINALLY built my first snowman (if you don't count the little mound of snow and dirt that I scraped together, using sweet gum balls for eyes, back in East Texas as a kid).  Meet Marky! He's melted now, but he was cute while he lasted.
As the sun went down, we headed back inside to get ready for a double date, suburbs style. We met friends in Acton for dinner, candlepin bowling (just bowling, according to the locals), and arcade games. Candlepin is pure New England. It involves straight cylindrical pins, a smaller ball, and allows three throws per frame. You may think this would make the game easier, but you would be wrong. I averaged 40 points per game. I'm pretty bad at bowling.
Saturday, after a dress rehearsal for my upcoming wind ensemble concert, we waded through slushy snow in Newton Center to grab some lunch, a gigantic slice of pizza, at the cute little Sweet Tomatoes. I liked their crisp ultra-thin crust and chunky and bright sauce.  
After an afternoon of errands, we got gussied up for another double date, this time big-city-style. We began with dinner and drinks at one of our favorites, Eastern Standard and then made our way to The Hawthorne Bar, tucked away in the Hotel Commonwealth. 

Walls lined with art, drink-related knick knacks, and comfy seating, The Hawthorne is cozy and inviting, like being in the living room of a very stylish friend. We stood by the bar for a while, with our name on the waiting list for seats (you can actually reserve seats -- greatest bar idea ever), and were eventually led to a corner with a couch and an arm chair. Run by the same folks as Eastern Standard, these folks are mixing up some quality craft cocktails (my favorite of the evening was The Martinez).  We will be coming here again.
Sunday, I performed with the Charles River Wind Ensemble at the beautiful First Baptist Church in Newton. Our concert, "Dance and Play", was a success, despite some crazy-hard clarinet parts. 
Post concert, we celebrated with dinner at Tu Y Yo in Somerville's Davis Square, offering authentic Mexican food and the best sangria I've had in Boston.  We started with appetizers, a quesadilla (more like an empanada) filled with oozing cheese and braised beef and a sope topped with Mexican sausage. For my entree, the Cochinita Pibil, marinated and slow-cooked pork, was falling apart as I piled it on a tortilla, topped with their homemade salsas. The beans, usually the most overlooked item on my plate, were so unbelievable that I can only assume large amounts of lard were used. Everything got two thumbs up from these Texans!
It was a busy weekend that went by all too quickly, and now it's back to the grind at work. It's time to think about things like deadlines, meetings, laundry, and meal planning for the week.  On a brighter note, I'll see you on Pi Day with a recipe for my mom's Lemon Chess Pie! Get excited!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Swiss Chard & Pancetta Quiche

Pi Day is right around the corner, so I've been thinking about pies this week. (I'm an engineer, what did you expect?)  To get into the spirit of things, I decided that a quiche was in order.  Quiche is a great way to use up whatever vegetables are stashed away in the fridge (like a bunch of swiss chard), and for me, it's a good excuse to use my favorite pie dish, courtesy of Emile Henry.

With a quick saute of pancetta and the earthy chard, a handful of grated hard cheese, and a pinch of cayenne to spice things up, all held together by eggs and cream, you have yourself a quiche! I served it along with a green salad for a simple, yet indulgent, dinner.  This would be perfect for brunch as well, or bring it to a Pi Day Party with friends. A homemade crust would be even better, but some weeknights call for a pre-made crust. I'm not ashamed! For a vegetarian-friendly version, ditch the pancetta and maybe throw in some sliced mushrooms. Really, it's hard to go wrong here!
1 9-in refrigerated pie crust
2 oz pancetta, sliced into small pieces
1 bunch swiss chard, strems removed and roughly chopped
6 eggs
1 1/4 c half and half
2 Tb sour cream
pinch cayenne
1 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375. 

Heat a large skillet over med-high heat. Add a little olive oil, and once heated, add in pancetta. Cook until crisp. 

Add swiss chard to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted.  When chard is done, remove the skillet from the heat. 

Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, half and half, sour cream, cayenne, and salt and pepper. 

Lay your pie crust into your pie pan, ensuring that it is formed to the bottom and sides of you dish. Fill with one half of the chard/pancetta mixture, and sprinkle with half of the grated cheese. Layer with the final half of the chard/pancetta mixture and the remaining cheese.

Pour egg mixture over the top, and then fold over or crimp the pie crust edges in whatever pattern your heart desires (see these tips for ideas).

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the eggs are golden and set. 

Slice into wedges and serve fresh out of the oven (or even at room temperature).

Monday, March 4, 2013

Books and Brunch

Saturday, I spent a very girly morning in Boston for brunch, shopping, and frozen yogurt with my friend Jessica. We started things off at Trident Bookseller's and Cafe, a little shop with some of my favorite things all under one roof: books, food, and coffee. What more could a girl want?  We were seated up on the second floor by a bay window, winter sun streaming in, with a fine view of bustling Newbury Street below.

I ordered a steaming mug of coffee and their breakfast sandwich, offered with bacon or avocado. But to choose between the two is just plain silly -- I got both! This is brunch, after all. What came out of the kitchen was an open-faced sandwich. Toasted bread spread generously with avocado and topped with crumbled crispy bacon, beautifully runny sunny-side-up eggs, and molten cheese spilling over onto the plate.  To balance out the indulgent sandwich, I also ordered one of their vegetables juices, the Stress Reliever. This was my first all-vegetable juice, and it was almost grassy in taste.  I have to admit, I didn't love it, but it was fun to try something new.
After our plates were cleared, it was time to shop! Before stops at Zara and Anthropologie, we poked around Trident's bookshelves. I somehow managed to walk away with only two books, one of which I already have two copies of at home. I know that sounds silly, but it's my favorite. It's Jane Eyre. Sweet, passionate, principled, courageous Jane.

See, my first copy is tattered and frayed, the cover hanging on by brittle strips of tape. I can't bear to get rid of it, because it reminds me of the first time I read the story. The second copy is one I bought for my husband before we got married. He started it twice but never finished it. Somehow, I love him anyway. Why would I need a third copy? Well, have you seen these Penguin Hardback Classics? They're gorgeous, and I couldn't help myself.
While we're talking beautiful book editions, I also want these, courtesy of Mr. Boddington's Penguin Classics. Jane Eyre, with its lively yellow print and curling text, and the cheery and colorful Pride and Prejudice are hard to resist. Apparently Penguin is attempting to corner the cool book cover market.
Then there are these breathtaking embroidered Penguin Threads covers (another by Penguin -- this is getting ridiculous). I would love to have this version of Little Women, another favorite, on my bookshelves.
Am I the only person tempted to buy endless copies of their favorite books? Every time I see an ornate new edition or a tattered and well-loved copy, I want to bring it home with me. Someday, when we have our very own home, I dream of having a cozy reading nook and walls and walls lined with books. At this rate, I'll need a whole shelf dedicated to sweet Jane, the Bennet sisters, and the March sisters.
(Home Library spotted at To Die For Decor Tumblr)