Friday, February 28, 2014

My 10 Favorite Things in February

How was your February? We're experiencing the winter blues a bit ourselves, but spring has to be coming someday right? After posting my 10 favorite things in January, I decided that as each month draws to a close, I want to take a moment to remember the highlights that I am thankful for.

1) Charleston with Jeff and Jessica
We had the best time touring Charleston with the best tour guides! 
2) Charleston BBQ
Speaking of Charleston, the BBQ deserves a shout out all of its own. I'm still dreaming of pulled pork doused in pepper vinegar sauce.
3) Mani-Pedis with Jane at Zen Nail and Beauty Bar
Sometimes you just need a mani-pedi date with a girlfriend. My favorite spot is Zen in Woburn. It's out in the 'burbs, but they're fantastic: a cup of hot tea while your feet soak, friendly folks, long lasting polish, and (possibly the best part) your choice of scented scrubs, hot oils, and lotions for both your legs and arms.
4) Smoked Salmon Salad with Rice, Red Quinoa, and Toasted Pecans
By far my favorite recipe creation of the month. It's light enough that you feel good eating it, but it's hearty enough that you're not hungry an hour later. And it tastes really good.
5) Brunch with Brad and Ashleigh at Area Four
The food was good, but the company was even better. We were thrilled to catch up with our friends, visiting from Dallas
6) My Pretty New Mug from Sarah
This bright colorful mug, a gift from my sweet friend Sarah, and my favorite hot teas are helping ward off the winter blues.
7) Valentine's Day Brunch for Two
I once read that according to the great Jacques Pepin, the most important thing about Valentine's Day is the morning after -- and who am I to argue with Jacques? So my husband and I  made these wonderful pink-hued Cranberry Meyer Lemon Biscuits from Joy the Baker, heart-shaped eggs. and clementines. I decorated the table with happy tulips and an antique carafe of coffee.
8) Clam Chowder Crawl
Tired of sitting in the house all winter, my husband and I took an adventure out to Cape Cod for a "chowdah" crawl. It was SO much fun.
9) Chatham Lighthouse Beach
On the aforementioned day trip out to the Cape, we spent part of the unseasonably warm day plopped down in the sand, watching the waves roll in, at Chatham Lighthouse Beach. Sometimes we forget that beautiful beaches like this are right down the road from us!
10) Breakfast in Bed
Last but not least, my very sweet husband brought me breakfast in bed for the first time featuring homemade biscuits. I'm not sure how I got so lucky!
(Bonus: we found another great use for our DIY Serving Tray!)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cape Cod Clam Chowder Crawl

Most of this winter has not been very glamorous for us. We've spent the vast majority of our free time holed up in the house (in fact, there have been weekends where we never even changed out of our pajamas)! It's been so cold and snowy that the thought of voluntarily venturing outdoors just hasn't seemed worth the effort. So we cook, we watch TV, we work on projects around the house, we read, etc.  But finally, we had a little relief this weekend. Temperatures were in the 50s which, at this rate, felt like summer. We were itching to get out of the house and to go on an adventure, so we hatched a plan for a day trip down to Cape Cod for a "Clam Chowdah Crawl" as the locals would say!
The Mission:

Eat all the chowder! After crossing the bridge and making our way down the Cape, our delicious adventure began in Chatham, and our crawl would take us back up the Cape, through Dennis Port, Harwich, and finally West Yarmouth.
The Contenders:

Chatham Squire (Chatham) - An almost-dive bar featuring foosball and pool tables, pinball, and walls lined with old license plates:
Clancy's (Dennis Port) - A slightly dated restaurant, but the large windows boast a gorgeous view of the Swan River. (Ladies, they also have a bowl of complimentary locally made salt scrub for your hands in the restroom.)
Captain Parker's (West Yarmouth) - Another wonderfully dated spot packed with locals (and boasting a pretty incredible Police badge collection in the bar area)
The Chowders:

Chatham Squire - Very solid. We're off to a good start here! The flavor is great, but it left us searching for any actual clam bits in the broth.  
Beer Pairing: Cape Cod Red
Clancy's - Things are still looking good. Another bowl of chowder, another packet of oyster crackers. This one is creamier with a little less briney flavor. Larger hunks of clam are the highlight.  
Beer Pairing: Sam Adams Boston Lager
Captain Parker's - What a way to finish! This chowder (while a smidge too salty if we're going to split hairs) was definitely the best. Great flavor and generous amounts of meaty clams! Bonus points for offering a bread bowl option!  
Beer Pairing: Sam Adams Cold Snap
The Things We Did When Not Eating:

While a large portion of our day trip revolved around eating, we did manage to squeeze in a few other activities between bowls of chowder.
After emptying our first bowl (and a game of Star Trek pinball) at Chatham Squire, we poked around a few of the local shops like the Yellow Umbrella Bookstore (new and used books) and The Mayflower Shop (cute house wares, toys, games, and souvenirs). Next we drove down to Chatham Lighthouse Beach for a little lighthouse spotting and for a stroll on the beach. The rolling sand dunes, sea grass, weathered wooden sand fence, and gray shingled beach houses were right out of a post card. With our second bowl of chowder behind us, we made time for a little antiquing at the Harwich Antique Center and at the Antique Center of Yarmouth. We were really hoping to squeeze in a game of miniature golf, but sadly all of the courses were closed for the season.
After our third and final chowder, the sun had set, and it was time to head home. The weather has turned cold again, and snow is back in the forecast, but our Cape Cod adventure will be a happy, sunny memory to keep us warm until Spring arrives!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Housewarming or Hostess Gift Idea: Embroidered Tea Towel

A couple weeks ago we visited friends who have recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina. They just bought their first house, and they were kind enough to welcome us into their home for the weekend (and play city tour guide), so I wanted to bring them a little gift to say thank you. One of my favorite housewarming (or hostess) gifts is a hand-embroidered tea towel for the kitchen. I use classic white flour sack towels and embroider cutesy little food-related patterns on them. They're quick projects that only take a couple of hours, but it's fun to be able to give someone a handmade gift.
What You'll Need:
Embroidery Floss (whatever colors you like)
Tapestry Needle, Size 22 or 24 (tips on choosing needle types and sizes)
Embroidery Hoop (I use an 8" hoop)
Cute Patterns (see below)
Flour Sack Towels
Water Soluble Tracing Pen 

Favorite Patterns
These are some of my favorite patterns that I've found.  Aren't they adorable? I do the bacon and egg love story or the happy coffee pot the most frequently.
Left to Right: True Love #5, True Love #2, True Love #1 patterns by Gina Matarazzo Design and Illustration

Clockwise, Starting at Top Left: Coffee, Grumpy Grill, Cupcake, and I Heart Tea patterns by Wild Olive

What to Do
Once you've picked a pattern and your embroidery floss colors, it's time to get started!

1) Place the towel over the pattern such that you can see it through the fabric, and trace along the pattern with your water soluble pen.

2) Place the towel securely in your embroidery hoop, and get to stitching! Using all 6 strands of embroidery floss, embroider along the lines of the pattern. I use the back stitch most frequently, and I like to use French Knots for eyes

Note: If you're new to embroidery, I highly, highly recommend Wild Olive's Embroidery Basics. They're incredibly helpful, and they got me started!

3) Once you're finished with your embroidery, simply rinse the towel to remove the water soluble ink, and let it dry.

4) Ta da! You have a pretty, handmade, one-of-a-kind gift that will hopefully bring a smile to just about anyone's face!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Toraya: Sushi Hidden Gem

I don't think I have an unusual story when it comes to sushi. For the majority of my life, I wouldn't dare try it. But when I moved to LA after college, after a significant amount of peer pressure, I decided to give it a shot. After all, it's basically the unofficial official food of LA. Turns out I was wrong about sushi and that I very much needed it in my life. I got pretty spoiled in LA, as there's a quality sushi place on roughly every other street corner, but upon moving to Boston, it took me a while to find a spot that I really loved. The place I finally stumbled upon was Toraya -- a little hole in the wall hidden gem in sleepy Arlington (and conveniently, about a 10 minute drive from our house). 
As far as I can tell you can't go wrong here. Maybe start with some green tea and gyoza. Then you'll want a little sushi. Or maybe a lot of sushi. Whatever floats your boat (speaking of boats, maybe you want one of the table-sized wooden boats full of sushi).
If you're still hungry (or if sushi really isn't your thing), try the Nabeyaki Udon, an udon noodle soup with chicken, mushrooms, a poached egg, and two gigantic tempura shrimp. I can only go a couple months at a time before I'm overcome by severe cravings for this soup. My husband has similar cravings for their steak teriyaki, served alongside rice and tempura vegetables.
Long story short, if you're in the Boston area, give Toraya a shot. On the other hand, this place is tiny, and it's hard enough to get a seat as it is, so maybe just stick to your "big city" sushi places in Boston. Leave the suburbs to us! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine's Day, friends! I hope it's a wonderful day (and weekend) spent with those you love, whether that be family, friends, or a special someone. We're celebrating tonight in our own kitchen with this Ricotta Gnudi with Pomodoro Sauce followed by these ridiculously adorable Raspberry Lemon Pie Crust Hearts! Then tomorrow we'll go out on the town for dinner and drinks at State Park and a trip to the movies. Sunday, we have a brunch date with our friends Brad and Ashleigh, who are in town for the weekend from Texas! So many fun things to look forward to!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Let's Do The Charleston

Sunday evening we returned to the frozen north after an all-too-quick trip to visit friends in Charleston, South Carolina. We had a grand old time, and not just because it was warm. We loved catching up with Jeff and Jessica (and meeting their new puppy Waldo), the city is just beautiful, and we ate incredibly well. Today it's a snowy evening back in Boston, but I'm still thinking of sunny South Carolina!
This was our first trip to Charleston, and boy have we been missing out. We loved strolling along the streets of downtown soaking up the sunshine and admiring the historical homes. Many of them were built before the Revolutionary War, and they're just stunning: real gas lamps, painted shutters, white columns on long covered porches, intricate wrought iron gates, colorful paint, and weathered brick.
There are gorgeous steeples dotting the skyline. The trees are an odd combination of Palmettos (the state tree) and Live Oaks with branches draped in Spanish Moss. Just a little ways down the road are sand dunes, charming beach homes, and light houses. We even saw the Angel Oak, a massive, knotted tree thought to be 400-500 years old, it's branches spreading low to the ground.
Jeff and Jessica, who we met through my husband's grad school program, took good care of us! They were the best tour guides, and we just had the best time catching up with them and exploring. I think my favorite moment of the trip was actually sitting around in their living room. Jeff started a crackling fire, Waldo curled up on the rug, and we caught up over champagne (for the girls) and whiskey (for the boys).
Sights We Saw:

Walking Tour of Downtown - Gorgeous old homes and churches, cute little shops, and cozy restaurants

The Battery/White Point Garden - A lovely seawall promenade and park, walkways shaded by Live Oaks, complete with a romantic little gazebo

Sullivan's Island Beach - A long walk down a weathered boardwalk brought us to the beach, still damp from the morning rain. Sand dunes, beach grass, light houses, rolling waves, and seagulls were involved.

Ravenel Bridge - We actually hiked out to the center of the bridge, over 3/4 mile. It was a good opportunity to walk off our BBQ, complete with a view over the water

Marion Square - Another pretty park, home to the Charleston Farmer's Market, the Calhoun Monument, and a moving Holocaust Memorial.

The Angel Oak - Can I tell you how much I wanted to grab a book and curl up on one of those long, low branches? What a lot of history this tree must have seen in its 400-500 years.
Things We Ate:

Red's Ice House - The perfect way to start the trip: outdoor seating, a view of the water (apparently dolphins usually play in the creek, but they must have been visiting other waters last weekend), a bucket of beers, shrimp fritters, and BBQ bacon-wrapped local shrimp

The Bar at Husk - After our walking tour of downtown, we stopped to rest our feet and grab a quick drink before dinner. It's a whisky bar also serving up some great cocktails like the Charleston Light Dragoon Punch.

McCrady's - An elegant restaurant serving up four courses of French fare made with local ingredients. I loved the fish course as well as the duck with black garlic puree.

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ - Ok, here's what you do. First, order the dry-rubbed smoked chicken wings. Next, go with a plate of pulled pork, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and collards. The pork is great with the Hot Red BBQ sauce but even better with their Pepper Vinegar. Wash all that down a Pain Killer, a tropical frozen rum concoction that makes no sense at a BBQ joint, but that doesn't matter because it's really good. Finally, despite how full you'll be, share a bowl of the banana pudding. You won't regret it.

Closed for Business - After our hike up the Ravenel Bridge, we stopped in here to try some local brews from their extensive tap selection. I really enjoyed the Holy City Pluff Mud Porter.

The Granary - We had the most memorable dinner here, starting with their house-made charcuterie plate (let me just tell you that there was pickled okra involved. I love the South). My entree was a perfectly fall-apart tender beef short rib over creamy, cheesy grits. 

Fat Hen - A carafe of mimosas, friend green tomatoes topped with pepper relish and dollops of pimento cheese, and the most amazing shrimp and grits I have ever tested made for a mighty fine brunch and a mighty fine farewell to Charleston.
Charleston, what an amazing city you are! Until next time!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Smoked Salmon Salad with Rice, Red Quinoa, and Toasted Pecans

Alright folks, are you ready for this? Two smoked salmon recipes in a row! This is still a relatively novel ingredient to me, as I used to assume it was gross (I know better now). I actually have a very distinct memory of my first meal in France as study abroad student. My French was shaky at best, but I recognized the word "saumon" on the menu. I ordered it, assuming it was a safe option.  When a salad arrived generously draped with what, to me, looked like raw fish, I think my face turned paper-white. I smiled weakly and thanked the waiter, but I was too scared to eat it. Thankfully my gallant friend Joseph came to my rescue, kindly offering to trade plates with me. Now 8 years later, this Smoked Salmon, Rice, and Red Quinoa Salad is one that I'm not allowing anyone to eat for me! I'll take care of my portion all by myself, thank you very much!
Serves 2-3

3 celery stalks, diced
1 Tb butter
1 cup water
1/2 chicken bouillon cube (optional)
1/2 cup rice and red quinoa blend (I used Rice Select Royal Blend with light brown rice, red quinoa, and freekeh)
4 oz smoked salmon, broken into large flakes (I used Matt's Amazing Smokehouse Ragin' Cajun)
2 Tb lemon
3 Tb olive oil
salt and pepper
handful of pecans, roughly chopped

Heat a medium-size sauce pan over medium heat. When hot, add 1 Tb of butter.

Once the butter is melted and hot, toss in the diced celery, and let cook for about 3-4 minutes until it begins to soften.

In the same pan, cook your grains according to the package directions. For mine, I heated the water in the microwave until almost boiling. I then poured the water into the pan along with the rice blend and the half chicken bouillon cube.

Raise the heat to high, and once the water is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook according to the package directions, until done and the water is absorbed (about 18 minutes for me).

Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon juice with a pinch of salt until it dissolves. Add a few cracks of freshly ground black pepper; then slowly whisk in the olive oil to form the dressing.

To toast the pecans, heat a small skillet over medium heat with no butter or oil. When hot, toss in the pecans and toast, stirring frequently, for a few minutes until warm and fragrant. When toasted, remove from the pan.

When there's about 1 minute of cooking time left on the rice, add in the flaked smoked salmon and about half of the dressing, stirring to combine. Re-cover the pan, and once the minute is up, remove from the heat and let sit for about 5 minutes. 

Remove the lid, fluff the rice mixture with a fork, and taste. Add the pecans and more dressing if desired (I used almost all of mine), stir to combine, and serve immediately.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Headed Down South

Guess where we're headed this weekend? Charleston! Our friends Jeff and Jessica, who we met during my husband's grad school program, moved there shortly after graduation, and tomorrow we'll be catching a flight south to pay them a little visit. It'll be our first trip to South Carolina, and I can't wait to see them, their new puppy, and the city! I'm already dreaming of shrimp and grits and warmer weather (especially after the foot of snow we received yesterday)!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Farmer's Market Dinner: Smoked Salmon and Brussels Sprouts Pasta

The Medford Winter Farmer's Market is back in full swing! We don't go every week, but it's so nice to have the option to purchase local produce and wares during these bleaker months. My favorites this past week were the lamb chorizo from Stillman's at the Turkey Farm, the smoked salmon varieties from Matt's Amazing Smokehouse, a canister of loose leaf tea from Soluna Garden Farm, and hand-filled cannoli from Joni's Cannolis (she even lets you sample filling flavors)!
When it comes to shopping, I usually have a detailed meal plan. But at the farmer's market I like to wander. And I like to buy what tickles my fancy that afternoon. When we get home, it's like a delicious puzzle to figure out how on earth to put it all to use. While browsing for ideas, I found this Smoked Salmon Pasta from Cherry on my Sundae. What a great idea to toss flaky smoked salmon with warm, creamy pasta, and why not add thinly shaved brussels sprouts, also from the market? Finish it with a bright, lemon cream sauce and a sprinkle or Parmesan, and you've got yourself a mighty fine dinner.
Serves 2-3

8 oz linguine
2 Tb olive oil
1 small shallot, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
12 oz brussels sprouts, trimmed of stems and outer leaves and thinly sliced
4-5 oz smoked salmon, cut into large chunks
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup heavy cream (plus a splash or two more if desired)
3/4 lemon, juiced
salt and pepper
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

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

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, and let it heat up. Once the oil is "swirlable", toss the shallot and garlic in the pan, sauteing for 1-2 minutes, until they just begin to soften and brown a bit. 

Add the brussels sprouts, and cook for 2 more minutes, until the leaves begin to wilt.

Pour in the wine, scraping up any browned bits off of the bottom of the pan. After about 30 seconds, pour in the heavy cream and lemon juice, stirring to combine.  

Lower the heat to medium, and once the sauce has simmered for 1-2 minutes, gently stir in the chunks of smoked salmon. 

When done, drain the pasta, reserving about 1/4 cup of the water. Add the pasta and reserved water to the skillet, tossing gently to combine with the sauce, vegetables, and salmon. 

When the pasta is coated in the sauce, taste and adjust seasonings as desired with salt, pepper, and another splash of lemon or cream if needed. Stir in the Parmesan cheese.

Serve immediately, topped with a little more Parmesan if desired.