Thursday, January 30, 2014

My 10 Favorite Things in January

How's your 2014 going so far? As the first month of the New Year is drawing to a close, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the things I've enjoyed most this month. It's been brutally cold and snowy, and work has been crazy busy, but there have still been plenty of bright moments to be thankful for!

1) Night Shift Brewing Cape Codder Weisse Release Party
We love Night Shift, a local microbrewery in Everett. They recently released a new version of their Berliner Weisse -- Cape Codder Weisse, aged with local cranberries and orange. It's really pink and really good.
2) Homemade Breakfast Sandwiches
Because most weekend mornings are too cold to venture out anywhere for breakfast, we've been making our own a little more often these days. My favorite were these breakfast sandwiches -- bacon, fried egg, and grated cheddar piled onto homemade biscuits and then warmed in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese. Why had we not thought of this before?
3) Medford Winter Farmer's Market
I love the Medford Winter Farmer's Market. It's little, and it's in a hotel parking garage, but it's so nice to have the opportunity to go buy local produce and wares even in the frigid winter months. Especially when those local wares include hand-filled cannoli from Joni's Cannolis! Jonie even lets you sample the different fillings. (My favorite is the plain filling dipped in pistachios)
4) Belly Wine Bar
On a recent date night we tried Belly, a fairly new wine bar in Kendall Square. We got a cozy table in the corner and snacked on fried chickpeas and a beautiful cheese plate while sipping our wine. My favorite wine bar is still Spoke, but this place is great too!
5) A4 Pizza
Another fun date night with this handsome man of mine and yet another super cool spot in Union Square! Pizza, craft beer, and the best garlic knots I've ever had (though the ones at C and O in Marina del Rey still have a very special place in my heart).
6) Beef, Barley, Sweet Potato Stew
My favorite recipe creation of the month was this hearty, comforting beef stew. I've been craving soups and stews like nobody's business given how cold it's been around here.
7) Pretty Snow
I may not like the cold, but I do love snuggling up on the couch where it's warm and dry and watching the snow fall outside. It's lovely and so peaceful.
8) Snowy Day Nachos
My husband made us a batch of nachos a couple weeks ago that changed my world. He spread bean dip on the chips before topping them with the standard cheese and jalapenos! I know this is old hat to a lot of people, but somehow I had never tried this before. And I love it!
9) Using our new Serving Tray
In the winter, we try to tackle a few projects around the house (one of our tricks for battling stir craziness). In December, we made this serving tray, and it's been so fun putting it to use this month!
10) Candied Pecans
The best part about my husband no longer being a grad student is that he has time to play around in the kitchen again, thus this batch of cinnamon and sugar coated pecans (using fresh Texas pecans). I love it when he cooks!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Baked Ziti with Turkey and Spinach

Y'all, it was 0 degrees this morning, and I'm really not ok with that. This kind of weather makes me never want to leave our house. I want to wear nothing but sweats and fuzzy socks and cook nothing but hearty, warming food. This Baked Ziti, hot out of the oven, really does the trick (and there's enough spinach thrown in to make it feel good for you). And as with most pasta dishes, it's pretty versatile. Try swapping ground beef, prosciutto, or mushrooms for the turkey. Arugula or swiss chard would be great stand-ins for the spinach. Mix in a little fontina with the mozzarella if you want to get really crazy. Just stay in your warm kitchen, and don't leave the house. It's cold out there!
(based on The Kitchn's Lasagna-Style Baked Ziti)

Serves 4-6

12 ounces ziti
1 Tb olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground turkey
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or less, according to your preference)
1 tsp Italian herbs (optional)
salt and black pepper
1 24-oz jar marinara sauce
3/4 bag spinach (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 cup grated mozzarella

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil, and cook the pasta until it's al dente, according to the package directions. 

While the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, and let cook for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.

Add the turkey to the skillet, breaking up the meat with your wooden spoon, and cook until it’s no longer pink, 5 to 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the crushed red pepper, Italian herbs, and a good pinch of salt. Stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so.

When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water, and return it to the pot.

Toss the pasta with the meat mixture, marinara sauce, spinach, ricotta, and the parmesan. Stir to combine, and allow the spinach to wilt.

Transfer to a greased 9x13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the mozzarella, and bake 12 to 15 minutes, until it's warm and bubbly and the cheese is melted.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Husband's Snowy Day Nachos

My husband taught me a recipe this weekend that I have to share with you! It's definitely one of those "why didn't I think of that?" recipes. Somehow growing up in Texas, arguably "the land of nachos", I had never heard of spreading your tortilla chips with beans prior to sprinkling them with cheese. It's a tad tedious, but it's a fun team project that's definitely worth it! They're a great snack perfect for football season or, in our case, a snowy day. Serve them up on a cute platter for company, or for a lazy afternoon, just bring the entire baking sheet right into the living room, and eat them directly off the foil while watching the snow fall outside. There's no judgement here.
Tortilla Chips
Bean Dip
Grated Cheese (cheddar, monterey jack, longhorn, a Mexican blend, etc)
Pickled jalapeno slices (optional)

Preheat your broiler to High.

Spread each tortilla chip with a thin layer of bean dip, and lay on a foil-lined baking sheet.
Sprinkle generously with grated cheese.
If you want to get really fancy, top each chip with a pickled jalapeno slice (or just loosely scatter them over the chips).

Slide your baking sheet under the broiler for just a couple of minutes until your cheese is nicely melted and a little browned. Keep a close eye on them so they don't burn!

Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Island Creek Oyster Bar + The Hawthorne

Way back in October, my husband and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary with dinner at Island Creek Oyster Bar followed by drinks right across the Hotel Commonwealth entryway at The Hawthorne --  two fine establishments without ever having to walk outside (during the Boston winter you can't beat that). It's basically a fancier version of the uber convenient date night combo Central Kitchen + Brick and Mortar. I know it's super late to be telling you all this, but the food! The drinks! The convenience! You need to know!

So let's start with Island Creek Oyster Bar. Their menu focuses on local oysters and seafood (you didn't see that coming did you?). We were seated in the formal dining room rather than the bar area which was buzzing with the after work crowd. Since we were in a celebratory mood, we began with glasses of bubbly.
We also ordered a couple different oyster varieties and a few shrimp cocktail (Island Creek and their sister restaurant Eastern Standard have the best cocktail sauce. I don't know what their secret is, but it's ridiculously good). For our entrees, my husband got fresh fish while I tried their popular Lobster Roe Noodles. The homemade pasta has an orange tint from the lobster roe, and the fresh noodles are tossed with generous hunks of lobster meat, brasied short rib, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and grated pecorino. It's incredibly rich, but I powered through and cleared my plate. Delicious!
After dinner, The Hawthorne was stellar, us usual. Their cocktails and chic, cozy atmosphere are hard to beat. Being a weeknight, the place was relatively quiet, which we prefer (we're getting old). We sunk into arm chairs, leisurely sipped our drinks, and made googly eyes at each other like we were a couple of newlyweds. Shown below is the highly drinkable Naked and Famous with mezcal, Aperol, Chartreuse, and lime juice.
All in all, a great way to celebrate three wonderful years together. Here's looking forward to many, many more!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Beef, Barley, and Sweet Potato Stew

Do you ever have those evenings when you're all set to start a recipe and you realize that you're missing a key ingredient? I'm sure you would never do such a thing, but that's exactly what I did this weekend. Saturday afternoon was dreary and rainy, just the kind of weather where you want something warm and comforting simmering on the stove all afternoon (coincidentally that's just the type of day where you don't want to run to the store at the last minute). I was excited to make Hungarian Goulash for the first time when I realized I had forgotten an ingredient at the store. I was in a bit of a pickle. There I was with 2 lbs of thawed beef stew meat on the counter and nothing to make with it. My husband was elbow deep in flour making homemade Parker House Rolls from Beard on Bread to go with the goulash. So what was a girl to do? Improvise and make beef stew! This template from The Kitchn was a really helpful starting place. And you know what? It was hearty, rich, and flavorful. What a happy accident!
Serves 5-6

2 lb beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized cubes and pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1/2 sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 cup red wine
1 bay leaf
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
1 Tb tomato paste
~1/4-1/3 cup barley
1 Tb cornstarch
salt and pepper

Heat a dutch oven or stock pot over medium high heat. When hot, swirl in enough canola oil to coat the bottom of the pan.

When the oil is hot, sear your meat (you'll probably need to do this in several batches). Add meat to the pan in a single layer. Let sit undisturbed for 2-3 minutes for a good sear to develop; then flip each piece to sear the other side. After another 2-3 minutes, remove the meat to a clean plate, and sear the remaining batches. (Meanwhile, don't be afraid of the blackened bits that are collecting along the bottom of the pan. That's building flavor for your stew!)

Add in another teaspoon of oil, lower the heat to medium, and then add in your diced onion. Saute for a couple of minutes. Then add in the diced celery, carrot, and sweet potato. Let cook for another 5 minutes or so until everything begins to soften.

Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan, and add the garlic and thyme to the open center of the pan. Let it cook for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant, and stir to combine with the veggies.

At this point, pour in the red wine to deglaze the pan, stirring and scraping up all of those browned bits.

Pour in the chicken broth, beef broth, tomato paste, reserved stew meat, and the bay leaf. Top the pan off with water, if required, such that the liquid just covers the meat. Bring the liquid to a boil. Then cover, and reduce the heat to low. Let the stew simmer for at least an hour, or until the meat is tender.

About 30 minutes before the stew is done, add the barley, and stir to combine. Continue to simmer until done. 

A few minutes before you're ready to serve, ladle some of the broth into a small bowl and whisk in about 1 Tb of cornstarch. Once dissolved, stir back into the stew, and let simmer for a few minutes until your soup begins to thicken. 

Remove the bay leaf and serve!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Year's Eve at Sportello

Happy New Year! I know I'm a little late, but 2014 still feels pretty new! We rung in the new year with a low key date night. We actually flew into Boston on New Year's Eve, so we came home, dropped off our suitcases, traded our travel clothes for date night duds and jumped on a commuter rail train into the city. We were going to Sportello!
Over the years, we've been slowly making our way to each of Barbara Lynch's restaurants. We love No. 9 Park, Menton, and Drink, so we were excited to finally try her more casual Italian dining outpost. We pulled up a barstool at their countertop to look over the menu. Homemade pastas are their specialties -- perfect for a cold snowy night!
We started with the Burrata appetizer -- warm creamy mozzarella served on toasted bread and topped with speck and dried figs. And since it was New Year's, we ordered a bottle of bubbly. We had a great time watching the chefs cook up orders on the stoves lining the back wall. We even spotted Chef Barbara herself for the first time! Our entrees arrived next, pasta piled high and steaming in their white bowls. I think I "won" dinner this time around with my Strozzapretti pasta tossed with braised rabbit and picholine olives, but my husband's Tagliatelle with Bolognese was no slouch.  After a little dessert and coffee, we braved the cold to head back home where we spent the rest of the evening cuddled on the couch in our PJs until it was time for the ball to drop and to clink glasses of champagne! Cheers, 2014!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Texas Christmas

Man, did the holidays go by like a blur!  How was everyone's Christmas? Ours was a good one spent at home in Texas, first with my husband's family in Austin and then with my family in Paris (Texas, not France). We drove a lot, we laughed, we cooked, we ate a lot, we caught up with old friends, we watched Christmas movies, and of course, presents were involved.

Austin Highlights:
When we flew into Dallas, our sweet friends the Ranges put us up for the evening. They took us out for TexMex, gave us stockings full of treats, let us play with their adorable little boy Noah, fed us a great breakfast the next morning, and then sent us on our way to Austin!

We drove through central Texas, happy to be amidst the wide open spaces of home, and eventually made it to Austin.  We spent our time leisurely, enjoying being home. We helped my mother-in-law make fudge (and helped her eat her homemade divinity and candied pecans), we put together a Christmas puzzle featuring trains (I'm married to a man who loves trains), we decorated gingerbread houses, I stocked up on used books from Half Price Books, we looked out over the dry lake bed of Lake Travis for the third year in a row, my mother-in-law made us wonderful biscuits and gravy on Christmas morning, and we opened presents while sipping mimosas. Afterward, we drove over to Grammy and Pampa's for Christmas dinner, playtime with all of our adorable baby cousins, and a raucous White Elephant exchange! I took away a huge foam hand for holding my beverage of choice. Just what every girl needs!
Austin Food Highlights:
And since one of our favorite parts of traveling home is all of the food, how could I leave out my favorite foods while visiting Austin?

Grammy's for Christmas Dinner
- While this option may not be publicly available, I couldn't leave it out. You can't beat a grandmother's Christmas dinner prepared with love for her family!

Tamale House East - My husband's brother was playing a gig here during brunch, so we stopped in for a little live music and some of the best breakfast tacos I've had. I ordered a classic bacon, egg, and cheese (plus a generous sprinkle of cilantro for good measure).

Texas Chili Parlor - Their migas and chili is the true breakfast of champions. Also, $2.50 mimosas are hard to beat (if you feel like a stiffer beverage, try the Mad Dog Margarita, made with mezal).
Vintage Heart Coffee - A friend opened up this darling little coffee shop in East Austin, and I finally got to stop in for a visit. It's warm, welcoming, and best of all, the coffee is delicious. My favorite touch was a basket of colorful cloth napkins for patrons to choose from.

HOPE Farmers Market - Down the street from Vintage Heart and Tamale House East, we stumbled upon a little farmers market. Though it wasn't large, there were some great vendors. Our favorite items were Curious Confections' English Toffee with Pecans and Wunder-Pilz's kombucha (we loved the Heart made with Yaupon Holly, apparently the only caffeine plant native to North America).
Rudy's - Is an explanation required for this one? No trip home is complete without BBQ.

Rosie's Tamale House - We never miss out on visiting Rosie's, my husband's hometown TexMex joint. Their menu even boasts a Willie's Plate thanks to a famous local patron!

Summermoon - We always try to stop in here and get a bag or two of their wood-fire roasted coffee to bring home with us.
Freebirds - It may not be the trendiest place to go these days in ever-changing Austin, but I still crave their burritos.

The Candy Jar - We had the best time decorating gingerbread houses in their back room!
Road Trip Food Highlights:
The day after Christmas, we began the long trek to Paris, heading north on I-35. I've made this drive many times, but the trip is more fun these days now that I have someone to share it with. And the best thing to share on the road? Kolaches from the Czech Stop Bakery in West! My favorites are apricot and the sausage with cheese!
Paris Highlights: 
My husband always teases me that just when you think you've reached the middle of nowhere in Texas, you have to drive 30 miles further to reach Paris. When we finally rolled into town, we couldn't believe the tree damage still evident from a terrible ice storm earlier in the month. Branches were piled like barricades along the streets. Trees were split down the middle or toppled over. Smoke rose from temporary brush burning sites. It looked like a war zone, and this was two weeks after the ice had melted! Though my parents' front yard was a mess of brush and limbs, inside the house was warm and welcoming! My grandparents joined us for Family Christmas Part 2 and Chorizo Soup thanks to some fantastic Mexican chorizo that my brother brought in from West Texas. We spent the rest of the evening in the living room catching up, opening presents, eating cobbler, and watching football (would you expect any different in Texas?).
We spent the rest of our time lounging, antiquing with Mom, cooking, you name it. One night Mom made us her Bar M Beef Stew, named after my Dad's cattle ranch. Another night I helped make Chicken Spaghetti and crustless caramel pies. After dinner one night, my husband got a fire going, and we sipped hot tea while watching White Christmas (an annual tradition). We caught up with old friends, we took a walk along the Trail de Paris, and we strolled through the square in Downtown Paris. 
Paris Food Highlights:
And these were our favorite eats in Paris!

Paris Bakery - I love coming in here for a pastry and coffee or for a sandwich with a cup of soup. This time we met up with my friends Philip and Sarah for lunch! (They also do Saturday Night Pizza and Live Music that I'm still dying to check out.)
Bois D'Arc - Paris can now boast its first "upscale" restaurant! An abandoned gas station has been turned into an adorable restaurant dishing up really good food. We stopped in for brunch, which was an incredible deal -- $10 entrees and complimentary mimosas. Who does complimentary mimosas?? I'm so glad that my parents joined us to finally try this spot!
Magels - The best chicken fried steak in town!

Hot Dog on a Stick - I know these are usually located in malls, but ours is a little trailer at our shopping center that's been a local institution since the 70's. With one of their cheese on a sticks and a big cup of fresh lemonade in hand, I truly feel at home.

La Familia - Dishing up some of the best TexMex in Paris, you can't go wrong with anything on their menu. My favorite is the cheese enchilada + sour cream chicken enchilada combination plate!
Paris Coffee - Last but not least! I wish this place had been around when I was growing up, because I'm a coffee shop girl to the core. Few things make me happier than camping out a table with a good book and a large, steaming mug of coffee. This time I was joined by Alison, my friend from the womb!
All in all, it was a wonderful Christmas, a wonderful trip home, and a wonderful vacation. I'm so thankful for the times we have visiting Texas! But here we are, back to the real world. A new year is upon us, and I think it's going to be a good one!