Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lemon Spinach Orzo

When the summer heat finally rolls around in New England, as it has this week, I go to all means necessary to avoid oven usage.  With no central air, our little window AC units just can't keep up with the heat from outside and the oven, so whether it's grilled pizzas, thick-cut pork chops, shrimp skewers, herb butter-rubbed chicken thighs, fish in foil packets, etc, we tend to center our meal plans around the grill. Now, the grill is my husband's territory, so I like to find quick and simple stove-top recipes that I can whip up in the kitchen while he mans the flames, cold beer in hand. This Lemon Spinach Orzo fit the bill when we were grilling pork chops, and it would be great topped with grilled shrimp or served alongside a beautiful steak
(recipe based on Life as a Strawberry's Parmesan and Spinach Orzo)

1 cup orzo
2 Tb butter
~1/8 tsp onion powder 
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 Tb flour
1 cup milk (I used whole)
1 bag of pre-washed spinach
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded (plus extra for garnish)
1/4 cup Comte cheese, shredded
1/2 lemon, juiced
(I also think a little lemon zest would be a great add-in to further brighten up the dish)

Cook orzo according to package directions. Drain and set aside in a bowl tossed with some olive oil (to prevent sticking).

Heat a medium-sized sauce pan over medium heat. Add butter, and once hot, add garlic, onion powder, salt and pepper and saute for 1 minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add flour to form a roux and cook for an additional minute, whisking continually (to ensure that your roux doesn't have the taste of raw flour).

Add about 1/4 cup of the milk to the pot, whisking to work out any lumps. Gradually add the remaining milk, whisking to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook until sauce has thickened, about 8-10 minutes.

Add spinach to the sauce gradually (giving each addition a chance to wilt down before adding more), and cook an additional two minutes or until all of the spinach is wilted down.

Gradually add the parmesan and comte cheese into sauce, stirring to combine. When cheese has melted, add cooked orzo and lemon juice to the sauce, and toss to coat. 

Garnish with extra parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Spoke Wine Bar

Friday night, we had tickets to see Harry Connick, Jr at Symphony Hall, and beforehand, we stopped into Spoke Wine Bar for dinner. Spoke opened recently in Davis Square, and we're a little in love with it. Like, I think I would move in with them if I could. This was our second visit, and we were just as impressed as we were on our first visit a few months ago.
It's a little hole in the wall spot, sunny and welcoming on a summer afternoon. There are no reservations, so we arrived early (around 5:30) to avoid a wait. Behind the bar, large chalkboards advertise wines available by the glass and a small but well-curated list of craft beers and cocktails. The back wall is lined with a mirror where the days specials are scrawled.
We were seated immediately and started with one of their cocktails, a traditional daiquiri made with rum, lime juice, and sugar, which really hit the spot while we browsed the food and wine menu.
Most menu items are smaller portions, so we like to pick a few things to share. To start out, we opted for one of their spreads, the delicious chickpea herb, served along with buttery, spongy flatbread sprinkled generously with a seed and nut blend.
Following our spread, we ordered the charcuterie plate. It arrived with three cured meats lined up on a wooden plank along with buttered toast, a spicy whole-grain mustard, and house-made pickled vegetables. On our last visit, the cheese plate was equally wonderful.
After the charcuterie plate, my husband got pasta and lamb ragout while I enjoyed the rabbit porchetta, both really great. We tried a couple wines with dinner; my favorite was a glass of rose (Ameztoi Txakolina Rose from Spain). It seemed fitting for the first day of summer!
After dinner, we somehow made room for a little desert before making our way to Symphony Hall (where the usher totally ripped my tickets in half instead of neatly along the perforation). We were younger than most of the audience by a good twenty years (that seems to happen to us a lot), but we were so excited to see Harry again. He's so darn talented and puts on an absolutely fantastic show. We had the best time! Now that grad school is behind us, I think I could get used to these date nights again!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How to Host a Grilled Pizza Night (and How Not To)

Two sweet families joined us Saturday for a backyard cookout featuring build-your-own grilled pizzas.  In tow were their unbelievably adorable babies, Noah and Ella.  How sweet are they?
We met both families through my husband's graduate school program, and both are about to leave Boston, headed for new homes and new careers following graduation, so it was great to have one last get-together!  Boy will we miss them! 
Set Up:

As this was an impromptu thing, we kept the decor simple  I threw a table cloth over our weathered picnic table, added a vase of fresh flowers, and that was that.  Thanks to throwing a couple baby showers, I also have a surplus of colorful cocktail napkins, mason jars, and striped paper straws that come in handy for cook-outs.
The Menu:

We provided drinks and pizza "fixins" while our fabulous guests brought appetizers (pita chips, hummus, and bacon-wrapped ricotta-stuffed dates), sides (a gorgeous spinach salad with cantaloupe, strawberries, pecans, and goat cheese), and dessert (to-die-for sea salt chocolate chip cookies).

For drinks, I went with the ultimate summer combo: lemonade and sweet tea, which yields a third bonus  drink (mix equal parts lemonade and sweet tea for a mighty fine Arnold Palmer). We also had a bottle of Rose wine and a cooler of beer on hand.
A quick poll of our guests' favorite toppings (as well as our own) resulted in a fine spread: tomato sauce, pesto, fresh basil, baby bella mushrooms, roasted red peppers, a mix of dried italian herbs, prosciutto, pepperoni, and of course cheese. We usually use just grated mozzarella, but this time we added in some fontina for fantastic results!
How to Grill Pizza:

Rather than making our own dough, we used balls of bagged fresh dough from Whole Foods (most supermarkets sell it in the bakery section).  We divided each ball into thirds, which was perfect for individual pizzas, and my husband stretched and tossed until each resembled a thin disk.

Stretch the dough a little thinner than you want your crust, as it will puff up some once cooked. Once stretched, poke the surface all over with a fork to prevent large bubbles in the crust.
For grilled pizza, you need your grill to be as hot as possible. Once the dough was tossed and the grill was piping hot, we grilled each crust on one side for about 1.5 to 2 minutes (with the lid closed).

To get the dough from the kitchen to the grill, we use a wooden pizza peel dusted with semolina or cornmeal to prevent sticking. One quick jerk should slide the dough from the peel to the grill (as Julia Child would say, you have to have the courage of your convictions about you).

We then put each crust (grilled side-up) on a plate and let our guests start decorating their pizzas. Even Baby Noah got to help with the pizza topping decisions.
Once pizzas were topped, we slid them back onto the grill  one at a time (again using the semolina-dustd pizza peel) for about 2 minutes to cook and crisp up the bottom and to melt the cheese.
Serve and Enjoy:

As folks got their pizzas one by one, we gathered around the picnic table and dug in. (Pro Tip: Forget about pizza cutters. The easiest way to cut pizza into slices is with a pair of kitchen shears.) At this point, we could sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the evening!
Evenings like this are why summer is my favorite time of year, especially in Boston. Everyone comes out of  winter hibernation, we cook out on the grill, we sip on lemonade or refreshing pink wine, we bask in the sunshine, we swat mosquitoes, and we laugh. What a wonderful night!
Lessons Learned:

Now, lest you think this all went off without a hitch, we learned a few valuable lessons at this cook-out. Thank goodness we have such sweet, patient friends to be our guinea pigs as we continue to get this whole "entertaining" thing figured out.

1) When you invite more than one southerner to a cook-out, make more than one pitcher of sweet tea. Otherwise it will disappear within the first 15 minutes of the party.

2) Doing one large grilled pizza is an incredibly quick meal. In less than 10 minutes, dinner is on the table, so we were surprised at how much more time consuming and labor intensive individual pizzas were (especially for the grill-master).

Next time, we'll toss each crust and pre-grill one side, cooling them on wire racks to prevent sogginess, prior to guests' arrival. When people arrive, they can decorate their pizzas all at the same time. The host can then line them up in an assembly line for the last step (cooking the bottom of the crust and melting the cheese).

3) Don't forget to use the practical, sturdy paper plates, ideal for backyard cook-outs and for minimal clean-up, that you sent your husband on a completely separate errand to get prior to the cook-out. Oops.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Graduation Weekend

A couple weeks ago my husband finished grad school, and last week Graduation had finally arrived! We spent a wonderful weekend celebrating with my husband's parents and his classmates, friends who we will miss very much as they scatter across the US pursuing their new careers. After two years of very hard work, it was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on their accomplishments and to have some fun.

My in-laws arrived late Tuesday night, just in time to eat a piece of Lemon Rhubarb Buckle and to crawl into bed.  Wednesday night, we went to Fenway to see the Rangers take on the Red Sox (our second time to see the Rangers within the week, strangely enough). We indulged in Fenway Franks and ballpark nachos, and thankfully this time the Rangers eked out a win!
Thursday, after a lazy morning sipping champagne punch, we headed out for the Sloan School of Management Convocation at the Wang Theater.
My husband with his proud parents:
The Wang Theater, recently refurbished, was just beautiful and a great spot for Convocation. I might have welled up with tears a few times (Pomp & Circumstance + my husband in a graduation robe is not a formula for dry eyes).
Following convocation, here's my very happy graduate (maybe happiest because he only has to wear this robe one more time).
We had a celebratory dinner at Marliave, not too far from the theater. It's one of the oldest restaurants in Boston (the fourth oldest to be exact), and they serve wonderful food and drinks, including a $1 oyster happy hour each evening.
After drinks and oysters in the bar area, we made our way to the dining room for the main course. We were seated at a table beside the floor-to-ceiling windows with a beautiful view of downtown. After dinner, my in-laws got a heavenly piece of chocolate cake, but we opted for a cheese plate.  We selected two of our favorites (Comte and Brillat Savarin), which were served with toasted brioche, candied walnuts, fig jam, and honey.
That evening, Sloan hosted a reception at the Prudential Center Skywalk, offering a staggering array of food (if only we were hungry), drinks, and a fabulous view of the city.
The Skywalk encircles the top of the Prudential Center so you can stroll along, admiring a 360-degree view of the city. Not a bad place to celebrate!
Back at home, we ended the day with presents and champagne -- what could be better?
Friday, Graduation Day was upon us, and what a rainy day it was! The remnants of a Tropical Storm were passing through Boston, perfect for an outdoor graduation (and a long graduation at that -- 3.5 hours where MIT reads the names of every undergraduate and graduate student as they walk across the stage).

We arrived early to get seats, counting on ponchos to keep us dry.  We laughed, knowing this would make for a heck of a story someday. It just wasn't so fun in the moment. The graduate procession began, and we managed to spot my husband on his way in. That was the only glimpse we got of him, but thankfully they had viewing screens enabling us to see him walk across the stage (some 2.5 hours later).  Once his name was read and his diplomas were in hand, we cheered and then immediately left to make our way out of the rain. The poor graduates had to endure another hour in the rain before the graduation finally drew to a close.
Following the ceremony, we attended two receptions: one for the business school and one for the LGO program.  Both were very nice (once we dried out) and a great chance to finally chat with friends.

Saturday, sunny and beautiful following the previous day's downpour (go figure), we drove to the North Shore for fried clams at Woodman's of Essex. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, as usual, but we made a respectable dent in our tray of fried whole belly clams, fried clam strips, clam chowder, clam cakes, and onion rings!
After driving to campus to return my husband's graduation robe, we checked to see if his thesis was bound and on the shelves in the engineering library. Turns out it won't be on shelves for another couple months, but we did get to see the inside of the Main Building's dome in the Library Reading Room, which was quite a sight. Out the front doors of the Main Building, we came upon the aftermath of the previous day's rainy festivities and took a few photos on the stage.
To take advantage of the beautiful day, we went for a little stroll along the Charles River. Along the MIT campus, you have the best views of the Boston skyline. See?
After living in Boston for four years (five and a half for my husband), here's our first picture together on the Charles! Not sure what took us so long!
We finished the evening with drinks at Meadhall (because sadly, the MIT bar, The Muddy Charles, was closed), dinner at Trina's, and more champagne!
Sunday morning, my husband's family headed back south, and we spent a lazy afternoon on the couch watching old episodes of 24 and recuperating from the weekend's festivities. It's hard to believe that these two years are behind us, and while it wasn't easy, I'm so proud of my husband, and  I'm so grateful for the friends and memories we made along the way. I look forward to seeing where the coming years take us all!

Congratulations MIT Class of 2013!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Champagne Punch

My superstar husband, who recently completed a dual-degree graduate program at MIT, graduated this weekend, and our in-laws were in town to help celebrate.  I love an excuse to serve champagne, so we began graduation day with my husband's favorite donuts and a pitcher of this lovely Champagne Punch (originally created for a Memorial Day cookout upon realizing I had not properly planned ahead and needed a last-minute drink to contribute).

It's crisp and refreshing, and it must be good for you, as there's fruit in it (that's how it works, right?).  Great for brunch, I bet it would be a hit at summer picnics or at bridal or baby showers. For a non-alcoholic version, I think Ginger Ale or Club Soda would substitute nicely for champagne.  For whatever the occasion, here's to celebrating!
1 59oz bottle of orange juice 
(I use Tropicana Pure Premium with No Pulp)
1 pint (2 cups) strawberries, frozen
~1/2 cup sliced peaches, frozen 
1/4 cup triple sec
(I use Cointreau)
1 bottle sparkling wine 
(I use Mionetto's IL Prosecco, very good yet affordable so it's good for mixing)
Frozen raspberries for garnish, optional

Add frozen strawberries and peaches into a blender. Pour some orange juice over the fruit to ease blending (I poured until the blender was about half full). 

Blend until fruit is completely pureed, stirring periodically if needed (I have a wimpy blender so I stir every couple minutes to ensure that everything gets pureed).

Pour the mixture into a pitcher. Stir in the triple sec and remaining orange juice until well combined. 

(If preparing in advance, stop here and store the fruit mixture in the refrigerator. Only add the sparkling wine when  ready to serve.)

Top off with the bottle of sparkling wine, stirring gently to combine.

Serve immediately, garnishing each glass with a couple frozen raspberries if desired.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Deep in the Heart of Texas

We're home from a weekend in Texas, and it was so good to be back in "God's Country" as we so humbly call it. On Friday, we hung out in Ft Worth with my beautiful friend Alison, who I grew up with in Paris. We jokingly refer to each other as "friends from the womb," as our mothers were best friends (and our grandmothers are friends). Then my parents drove down from Paris to spend Saturday and Sunday with us. We ate good food, soaked up the warm (read: hot) Texas sunshine, sipped local Texas beers and craft cocktails, went to a Rangers game at the Ballpark in Arlington, and got caught up on all the local gossip. Below are highlights from the trip!

Dinner and Texas Brews at The Live Oak  in Ft Worth:

With a downstairs dining area featuring an impressive line-up of taps and a live music hall, they also have a rooftop patio overlooking the Ft Worth skyline.  
Live Oak trees border the patio, branches strung with white lights.  It was a gorgeous evening, warm with a breeze, so we opted for the rooftop. We were seated just as the sun was setting.
We particularly enjoyed trying beers from the local Martin House Brewing (specifically the Imperial Red Ale and the Saisaon), and with a plate of Frito Pie topped with spicy pork chili verde, it felt like home.
Cocktails at The Usual Bar in Ft Worth:

Following dinner, we sampled the craft cocktails that they're mixing at The Usual. I got a very good Martinez (though a bit sweeter than I prefer) followed by a wonderfully tart Last Word.  My husband came away with their Old Fashioned recipe, deeming it the best he's ever had.
(logo from The Usual Bar website)

Breakfast at The Black Rooster Bakery in Ft Worth:

This place is too cute. In an unassuming shopping center, the decor is warm and inviting when you step in the door, like a quaint farmhouse kitchen.  The menu is hand-written on a hanging roll of butcher paper, and the baked goods were a beautiful sight.
Sitting out on their patio, my husband dug into a pecan cinnamon roll, while I enjoyed an outstanding roasted garlic and cheese quiche.  The crust was buttery and flaky, and the sweet taste of roasted garlic was prominent but not overpowering.
Signs You're Back in Texas:

Driving around, I loved seeing all the little things that just scream "You're not in New England anymore": Texas flags, ten-gallon hats, cowboy boots, pastureland, Mexican grocery stores, big trucks, and this sign advertising "mudbugs" (crawfish to the rest of the world).
Tex-Mex at Mariano's in Arlington:

This place looked a bit run down and the parking lot was pretty empty when we pulled in.  We were worried that we were in for a disappointing lunch, but we were pleasantly surprised! The chips were warm and fresh and served with two salsas, one a traditional red salsa and the other a roasted salsa.  Both were so good I was tempted to drink them out of their little bowls.  My sour cream chicken enchiladas were very good, and the bite I stole of my husband's tacos al pastor (blanketed in queso) was great.
Texas Rangers Baseball at The Ballpark in Arlington:

We spent a fun (and very hot) afternoon watching the Rangers play the Kansas City Royals. It was my first time at the Ballpark in Arlington since high school (over 10 years ago) and my first time with my parents since I was a little girl.
Despite our best efforts cheering them on, the Rangers lost in extra innings. But we still had a great time!  After all, no afternoon spent at the ballpark with a cold beer, an even colder Lemon Chill, and your family is a wasted afternoon.
Real Texas BBQ at David's Barbeque in Arlington (technically Pantego):

We resisted the temptation to eat ballpark hot dogs and nachos because we had big post-game plans: Texas BBQ!  This family-owned spot has been serving up smoked meat for four generations. I've read that DFW doesn't have a lot of great barbeque, but at David's they have it down to a fine art.  It's located in a drab strip mall, but once inside, you're greeted by the smell of wood smoke and meat and wonderfully dated decor.
I got a chopped beef sandwich with a side of their smoked beans and fried okra.  The chopped smoked brisket (enough for two sandwiches) was piled high on a buttery bun.  I poured sauce over the meat until it ran down the sides, but the meat is so perfectly smoked that the delicious sauce is unnecessary. It's just icing on the cake. While the beans weren't my favorite, my husband loved them.  But the fried okra was the best I've had outside of my mother's kitchen.
They even had a soft-serve machine for an after-dinner ice cream cone! I haven't seen soft serve at a BBQ restaurant since Rockin' W closed its doors in Paris when I was a kid.
Brunch at Brownstone in Ft Worth:

We spent Sunday morning back in Ft. Worth for brunch at Brownstone.  We passed on outdoor seating and opted for the air-conditioned interior, bright and sunny thanks to the large windows.  What caught my eye first was a little card to make your own mimosa. This is such a good idea! I opted for the house sparkling wine with orange juice, cranberry juice, and apricot nectar.  Crisp and refreshing, it did not disappoint.
I couldn't resist ordering the chicken fried steak blanketed in jalapeno white gravy and topped with an egg.  Chicken fried steak, TexMex, and BBQ make-up the Texas Tri-fecta, so my weekend was now complete. We also shared a side of pepper jack cheese grits, because, well, they were pepper jack cheese grits.   The homestyle potatoes were a bit mushy, but I was too busy enjoying the chicken fried steak to care. I loved the hint of heat from the jalapeno white gravy (technically green gravy) and the perfectly oozy egg.
Fond Farewells:

After brunch and chatting with my parents over Jamba Juice smoothies (another thing sorely missed in Boston), we said our farewells.  My folks headed east to Paris, and we headed to the airport. We squeezed a lot of fun into one little weekend!
Now we're back home ready for graduation festivities to start! My husband's parents arrive this evening, and graduation events are right around the corner, on Thursday and Friday! Let the celebrating begin (...err, continue)!