8 oz. Velveeta, cut into cubes
The fragrant cooking smells fill the house as we decorate, and when it is time for dinner, we enjoy a traditional meat and potatoes feast that was easy, filling, and just right for a chilly Sunday afternoon.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the green onions and saute them until they are soft, only about a minute. Add the rice and saute for 2-3 minutes until well mixed. Add the Champagne and lower the heat. Simmer until the liquid is almost evaporated, stirring often. Slowly add the broth, a few ounces at a time, stirring often and each time simmering until the liquid is almost evaporated (about 20-25 minutes total). By the end of the broth, the rice should be tender. Add the scallops and simmer until they are cooked through. Then add the cheese, stir to mix well, season with salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy.
Pom Wonderful Pan-Seared Duck (for two)
We were free on Sunday and while I got the traditional first-of-the-holiday-season batch of homemade Chex Mix going in the oven, Chris measured out our flour and broke our eggs and set the KitchenAid to work on kneading the pasta dough. When we had a ball of pasta, we let it sit for 15 minutes to rest and then divided it into six small portions. We cranked each portion through the first setting six times, then through the remaining settings once each. We were left with long, wide strips of pasta that were rippling at the edges, just right for lasagna. We let these dry for 15 minutes then cut them to fit our baking dish.
In the meantime, I made a quick tomato sauce by sauteeing two cloves of garlic, one medium-sized chopped onion, a tablespoon of tomato paste and Italian seasoning. When the onions were soft and browning, I added a large can of crushed tomatoes and some salt and pepper. I let this simmer while Chris opened a bottle of Valpolicella and proceeded to add about a cup to the sauce. The sauce became a deep red color and was much tastier and less tomato-sweet after the addition of the red wine. As the sauce simmered, I made the ricotta filling by mixing one container of ricotta cheese, one cup of shredded mozzarella, 1/2 cup of grated grana (similar to parmesan) and one egg. For seasoning this mixture, I added a dash of nutmeg, a few shakes of dried parsley and of course, plenty of salt and pepper. Finally, I browned a pound of ground beef, making sure all of it crumbled without overcooking it.
Once we had cut the pasta, we placed it in boiling water until it began to float (about 2 minutes) and began to assemble the lasagna. Each layer consisted of pasta on the bottom with a thin cover of sauce, then a sprinkling of beef and several dollops of the cheese mixture. We repeated this until we ran out of ingredients and then did a smattering of mozzarella on the very top. We baked our lasagna for a half hour at 350 until we could see it bubbling.
The lasagna stayed together nicely; it was very easy to cut a piece and not have it fall apart into a mushy mess. It had great flavor and the ingredients were evenly spaced throughout each bite. The top layer of pasta got crunchy, and I attribute this to the fact that we did not cover the dish when we baked it, which I guess we should do next time. We had enough to give my friend J a big piece for lunch and have some again the next night for dinner. All in all, a success, and I look forward to my next homemade pasta adventure - ravioli!
At Dish, there were two offerings for each course. For the first course, we both chose the lobster bisque. It was good but a little too buttery, if that’s possible, and it was nowhere near as delicious as the one we had at CAV in Providence, which shot to the top of any lobster bisque competition with the amazing addition of pure vanilla bean extract. For his entree, Chris had linguine with clams – a pretty small portion that, according to him, was “not spectacular.” I had beef medallions in a cabernet sauce with mashed potatoes. There were two pepper-crusted medallions of beef - they were very tender and cooked medium-rare as I requested. The garnet-colored sauce was a nice complement, and the mashed potatoes had peas and carrots mixed in, which at first I thought was weird, but I grew to enjoy.
We both had a rough week with a lot going on at school, so we were tired and got full quickly. The dessert choice was between a deconstructed chocolate cream pie and a red velvet cupcake. We both chose the cupcake, but asked our server to pack it to go. We had visions of enjoying these while watching tv when we got home. In reality, we both went to bed early, so I can't tell you about the cupcakes, although they looked moist and were garnished with toasted coconut.
Granted, last night's experience was better than the one I had with J (you can read about that experience HERE), but still it was just okay. There are rave reviews out there, but Chris agrees with me that we just don't see a reason to go back, unless it's for the reasonably-priced wine and dessert bar. Of course, even that depends on those cupcakes...
A weekend with nothing planned. It's practically unheard of in our house, and seems to have come at a great time. The leaves have been vacuumed by the city's leaf-sucking truck that reminds me of something from Dr. Seuss; the house is clean enough, although I should probably do a few loads of laundry; I've shut off my cellphone and the ringers on the landline, and nothing is really stopping my husband and me from hibernating for two full days. My personal goal is to stay in pajamas, cook a few decent meals, catch up on my magazines, and watch a couple of Lifetime movies. Chris has added "studying" to his list, since he's taking two graduate courses this semester, poor thing. I'll let you know how it turns out...
Saturday was a perfect day to sleep in. It was warm, yes, but also gloomy and rainy. When I woke up, I watched Anne Burrell's Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and was inspired to make an autumnal pork dish. I found a pork loin in the freezer and set it out to defrost. Dinner would be several hours away, but I felt like cooking, so I made an apple pie. I recently bought Ania Catalano's book, Baking With Agave Nectar and found her recipe for "All-American Apple Pie." Although it called for Granny Smiths, I only had one, but I had plenty of Macintoshes, so I used those, and I cheated on the pie crust, using good old Pillsbury. When it was done baking, I put the pie aside and began working on dinner. I sliced a Vidalia onion and put the slices into a large baking pan. I poured apple cider over the onions so they were about 3/4 of the way covered and then seasoned the mix with salt, pepper and a bundle of dried thyme. I chopped some fresh rosemary and garlic and added some dried sage and olive oil to make a rub for the pork loin, which I placed over the onions in the baking dish. I put the whole thing in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes, then broiled it for a few minutes to turn it brown. While the pork was cooking, Chris cut three white potatoes into a small dice and tossed them with 4 ounces of diced pancetta. We cooked these, seasoned with salt, pepper and hot Hungarian paprika, in a cast iron pan, stirring often, until the pork was done. While we let the pork rest, we put the onion/cider mix onto the stove top, added a tablespoon of butter, and let it reduce into a sauce that we drizzled onto the pork. The pork was medium, barely pink in the very center, and very tender and well-seasoned. The "apple-cider sauce" had a nice sheen from the butter and was thick, sweet and tasty, with hints of the thyme and onion adding depth of flavor. The potato-pancetta hash was nicely caramelized, and as Anne Burrell says, "Brown food is goooood." A little while after dinner, we enjoyed dessert. Even with my substitutions, the pie was delicious. The agave nectar, used in lieu of sugar, allowed the tartness of the apples to shine through instead of being overshadowed by sweetness.
On Sunday, we were much less prolific. I spent the afternoon reading over half of a novel, while Chris whiled away the hours on the computer. Around 3, we decided to make our Buffalo-Chicken Pizza for dinner. Overall, it was a very relaxing weekend spent in hibernation mode.
Everything was delicious - the soup was tasty and warming; the salads were cold, crisp and fresh; the prime rib was thickly cut, tender, and roasted to a nice medium rare; the vegetables were a mixed sauteed medley and the baked potato, well, it was a baked potato. Sour cream for that and a zippy horseradish sauce for the steak came on the side.
That alone was plenty of food, but we were starving when we got there and had started off with a few appetizers, the standout of which was the "Baked Brie Crostini," toasted slices of Italian bread topped with a raspberry jam, brie cheese and spiced nuts. The plate was drizzled with a balsamic glaze that did wonders for the brie. All I can say is yum. Gorged on food, we still managed to split a unique dessert between three of us - a cream puff covered in chocolate sauce with bananas foster and vanilla ice cream. Again...yum. Dad enjoyed his favorite standby of vanilla ice cream.
I guess my point here is this: Don't be put off by the Delaney's reputation. If you want fine dining, you can have it there, but there's also the trendy, casual fare and specials of The Mick. Obviously, the apps and desserts put us out of "fantastically cheap" range. But $17.95 for the prime rib dinner, with its generous size and high quality, is worth the drive, especially in these econoMICK times.
We wanted to be relatively close to home, so that we could get home early enough to watch history in the making, so we chose Max Fish in nearby Glastonbury. Max Fish is set up a bit differently than other Max restaurants, with a dining room, a very large bar area, and a raw bar. In addition to the dinner menu, the bars serve what they call "Shark Bites," which are smaller, lighter and/or less expensive dishes. Rather than wait in the ever-increasing line we sat at the raw bar where we could order off either menu.
Jason was our server and he was very busy. Apparently another server is usually there to assist him, but tonight he was alone, serving 10 bar guests and shucking oysters and clams for the entire restaurant. Although he never stopped moving, Jason was attentive, funny and friendly. He made conversation and suggestions with ease, and we would definitely go back to sit at his bar again.
Chris loves oysters, and asked Jason which of the five available kinds he preferred. Without hesitation, he praised Wellfleets as the "sweetest" and told us how he had recently had gone there to participate in a shucking contest - doing well but being humbled by the more-practiced home team. Chris enjoyed the nice balance of sweetness and brininess these Massachusetts oysters offered.
For his entree, Chris ordered the Char-grilled Mahi Mahi. This seemingly small, but in reality, perfectly sized dish consisted of a 4-ounce piece of fish lightly seasoned, perfectly grilled, and served over green beans and rice in a butter sauce that had a nice toasty flavor with hints of lemon and mustard. The fish was flaky and tender, and the accompaniments were enhancing rather than overpowering. Chris ate every bite and pronounced it "delicious."
I'm not a huge fan of raw oysters, but I did partake in one of Chris' half-dozen. I added plenty of cocktail sauce and lemon, and did find it to be quite tasty, although I still wasn't crazy about the texture. When I was ready to order dinner, I asked super-shucker Jason what he thought of my getting the shrimp and scallop pot pie and he enthusiastically approved. The four or so large shrimp and several small bay scallops were served in a savory cream sauce with chopped herbs, caramelized shallots, diced carrots, and green peas. A perfectly browned, flaky puff pastry crust topped off this masterpiece of a pot pie. I can see myself going back for this entree often, especially as the days grow colder. It was comfort food at its finest.
1 lb. seafood: crawfish (cooked and peeled) and/or shrimp (raw, peeled and deveined)
1 stick butter
1 pint half-and-half
½ cup chopped green onions
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
Creole seasoning to taste (the more, the spicier, and I prefer Tony Chachere’s)
1 lb. pasta (rotini if you’re being authentic)
Put water on to boil pasta and cook pasta al dente. Melt butter and sauté garlic and green onions until fragrant. Add shrimp and/or crawfish and cook for three minutes. Gradually add half-and-half, then the thyme and creole seasoning, stirring well*. Cook five minutes so that the seafood is cooked through and the sauce becomes thickened. Add cooked pasta and let the dish sit over low heat for five more minutes, stirring often. Serve with crusty French bread, of course!
*It is important to stir often so that the sauce doesn’t break (separate).
Amy’s Tuscan White Bean Soup
Total Time: 40 minutes
¼ lb. chunk of fatty pancetta, cut into quarters
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 15.5-ounce cans Goya cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper
3 ½ cups vegetable stock (you can substitute chicken stock or even just water)
Shredded parmesan cheese
Place the pancetta quarters into a pan and render the meat over medium to high heat to produce enough oil in which to sauté the onions and garlic. This should take about 20 minutes, so you can chop your onion and garlic while this is happening.
When pancetta has let out enough oil, discard the meat and add the chopped onion and garlic. Sautee on low heat until onion is translucent and garlic is fragrant.
Add the drained and rinsed beans to the pot, then add plenty of salt to taste. Stir.
Add the liquid (stock or water) and stir well.
Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
Add one large sprig of fresh rosemary (or 1 tablespoon of dried rosemary leaves) to pot and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.
To make a thicker soup, use an immersion blender two or three times in the pot. If you do not have an immersion blender, take a cup of beans out of the soup, mush them up, and add them back in as a thickener.
When ready to serve, swirl some extra-virgin olive oil over the top, add a sprinkle of shredded parmesan cheese, and enjoy with some good bread on the side.
Now, back in Louisiana for the Fourth of July, this family’s tradition was to have a crawfish boil. Well, I’m always up for a crawfish boil – it’s one of the things I truly miss about living in NOLA. When C called in the beginning of summer and proposed the idea, it was a no-brainer! So we had a good old-fashioned New Orleans-style crawfish boil for our Fourth of July. Here’s what we did.
There are several companies that ship crawfish from LA and you can find them online. I like to shop around to see who has the best price by the pound for the “mudbugs,” and the best shipping costs. They come shipped live, and with the seasoning and directions* you need to do your own crawfish boil. C had 20 pounds of crawfish delivered to her house, purged them, and brought them over on the Fourth. In the meantime, I had several ears of corn, a bag of red potatoes, a few lemon halves, and a couple of pounds of andouille sausage all set to go into the pot. As we went to throw in the seasoning, we realized that in the rush of getting the kids ready and getting to our house, C left the seasoning behind in Cheshire. I had some, but it was pretty old, so we ended up having to spruce it up a bit by adding some Tony Chachere’s and lots of salt. We brought the water and seasoning to a boil using our outdoor burner. Then we added the corn, potatoes, sausage and lemons to the pot and allowed them to boil for about 15 minutes. Next we threw in 10 pounds of crawfish, boiled them for 10 minutes, and then took the pot off the heat to allow everything to soak up the seasoning. We had already covered our patio table with newspaper, so we only had to drain the water and spill the contents of the basket onto the table. Our first batch was a bit bland, so we added more Cajun seasoning and salt as well as some straight cayenne pepper to the remainder. We then spent a glorious afternoon “sucking the heads and pinching the tails” as the saying goes. What a great way to spend a summer holiday with good friends!
*If you are unfamiliar with the whole crawfish boiling and/or eating process, this website is both humorous and informative.
Preheat oven to 450°. Separate 6 tablespoons of the butter into pats and place in baking dish large enough to hold the shrimp in one layer. Add pepper, peppercorns, Creole seasoning, rosemary, Worcestershire and garlic. Place in oven until butter is melted, stirring to combine ingredients. Place shrimp in one layer over sauce and return to oven. Cook approximately 3 minutes. When shrimp start to turn pink, turn shrimp over and cook another 3 minutes. Add in remaining butter and lemon juice. Serve with crusty French bread to sop up the sauce, and lots of napkins because this is peel-your-own!
To serve over pasta, peel and devein the shrimp first, then cook as above, adding chicken broth and white wine to make a suitable sauce.
For today, let me tip my hat to Sandra Lee of Food Network's Semi-Homemade fame. While in Providence, Rhode Island the other day, Chris and I stopped at the fabulous Italian food emporium Venda Ravioli and bought gorgonzola-walnut ravioli for our “semi-homemade” dinner that went as follows.
We put salted water to boil. In the meantime, we melted approximately 2 ounces of unsalted Presidente butter in a small saucepan. Into the butter we stirred ½ jar (3 oz.) of Bella Cucina Artful Food's Walnut-Sage Pesto and let that simmer until the butter browned a bit. When the water was rolling, we put in the frozen ravioli and let them boil until they floated. To serve, we topped the ravioli with our brown butter sauce and garnished with some fresh sage from our herb garden.
Not only did dinner taste delicious, it was quick and easy! The pasta was al dente, the filling was creamy and slightly tart, and the pesto butter, although not necessarily light, enhanced the taste of the ravioli's filling.
Saturday morning I set out a whole chicken breast to defrost and began thinking about what to do with it. Later, while we were weeding out the herb garden, a large stem of the sage plant fell off. I was muttering words like “sage,” “chicken,” and “pancetta,” when Chris suggested butterflying and pounding the chicken breast then rolling it with the sage and pancetta. We were definitely on the same wavelength. I decided to do the side dish and leave the chicken to Chris. My dish would be “Fingerling Potato and Pancetta Hash.” I cut a bunch of fingerling potatoes of different colors (red, white, purple) into a small dice, then did the same with an onion and some pancetta. I tried my best to make all the pieces about the same size. I fried the pancetta down until it let out enough oil in which to cook the potatoes and onions and then let the heat work its magic. I stirred it often and let it cook for about ½ hour. Meanwhile, Chris worked on the chicken until it was nice and thin, then rolled it with sliced pancetta and sage leaves. He tied it so that it would stay together and browned it in a pan with oil. He placed it in a roasting pan with two tablespoons of water with a couple of sage leaves floating in it. Finally, we put it in a 350 oven for 20 minutes so that it would cook through. We sliced the chicken and spooned a bit of the sage water over it, serving it with the hash. It was fantastic. We both agreed that we had overcooked the chicken slightly, and would probably only put it in for 15 minutes next time. Otherwise, it was a really good meal and we had a great time making it. Our finished platter is pictured here.
Another thing I did on Saturday morning was make a marinade for a flank steak I had bought earlier in the week. I wanted the steak to marinate for awhile, so I planned to have the steak for Sunday night’s dinner. I based the marinade on my friend L’s recipe. L is a chef and she teaches cooking classes at the local market. She taught this marinade at a class I took, and I played around with it a bit based on what I had in the house. Basically, I mixed 2 tablespoons each of the following spices in a Ziploc bag: hot paprika, sweet paprika, cumin, chipotle chili powder and garlic powder. I added ¼ cup each of red wine vinegar and olive oil, then a couple of dashes of lemon juice and red pepper flakes. Finally, I threw in ½ cup of demerara sugar. We put the steak in the bag, mixed it up and let it sit in the fridge until Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, Chris heated up the grill. I knew the steak would be spicy, so figured on having it with coconut rice and grilled pineapple. I made the rice (see earlier entry) and Chris got his grill groove on. He seared the meat perfectly and cooked it medium rare. What a great balance of flavors! We had spice from the steak, sweetness from the rice, and acidity in the pineapple. We were so into it that we couldn’t even take a minute to find the camera, so we have no picture, but I’m sure we’ll be making this dinner again.
There’s a restaurant about a mile from our house that has been open since 1933 and is “famous” around these parts. It’s called Cavey’s, and it’s actually two restaurants in one – the upstairs in Northern Italian, and the downstairs is Modern French. We’ve gone to the Italian part a couple of times for dinner and were never terribly impressed by it. It was good, but nothing to rave about. We’ve enjoyed ourselves more at their occasional wine tastings, where they offer five small plates with wine pairings, and some expert or other discusses the wines. It’s fun, tasty, informative, and at $25, relatively cheap. But again, I digress.
Cavey’s is more well known for the French restaurant, which often wins local “Best of” awards and is Zagat rated. So we decided to try it for this “special” night. A top selling point for us is that they use local, seasonal ingredients when possible. For instance, one of the specials on this particular night was a risotto with locally foraged wild mushrooms, ramps and spring peas. The ramps and peas were gathered from around the area, and our server told us they actually have a mushroom forager on staff. I was so happy to hear that, even though I despise mushrooms!
When we descended downstairs, the first thing we noticed was the beautiful and romantic décor. Dim lighting, flower arrangements, mirrors and gold velvet wallpaper transformed what must have once been a plain basement into an enchanting dining area. The maitre d’, Andre, introduced himself and led me by the hand to my table, pulling out my chair and placing my napkin on my lap. Throughout the evening, Andre served as our host and wine steward as well as our own private Cupid, liberally pouring champagne, encouraging us to dance between courses, and offering me pink roses with my box of leftovers. He really made our night.
Our server was also very good. She was attentive without being overbearing, made light conversation with us, and she was able to easily answer questions about the menu and the ingredients. One example is when I noticed a tiny purple flower mixed into my crab timbale. I was curious and asked her what it was, and she informed me that scallions flower at this time of year. When I put it in my mouth, it tasted exactly like a scallion! Who knew?
Our bus boy turned out to be a former student of mine. It’s probably cliché, but my how he’s grown. I taught him his freshman year, and there he was, 18 years old, trying to work his way into the restaurant industry. His professional demeanor and excellent French service were surprising to me, and again, made it a special evening.
Beyond the ambience and service, the food was exceptional. I started with the aforementioned crab timbale which was a good-size portion of crab meat flavored with a subtle spicy green curry and scallions. It was served with a salad of Asian greens tossed in a gorgeous lemongrass vinaigrette that I could have done shots of. Chris began with a perfectly seared foie gras that was served over toast points with a port sauce. I’m not a fan of foie, but Chris said it was awesome. For entrees, I enjoyed a seared duck breast that, although it was slightly overcooked (I had ordered it medium rare), was seasoned well and had nice crispy skin. The potatoes that accompanied it were mashed with olive oil and were very tasty. A nice sweet and sour reduction sauce rounded off both items. Chris had the lamb dish, a rack of lamb roasted perfectly to medium rare, with braised lamb raviolis, both of which were delicious.
We started with champagne, but a nice big red was in order for our entrees. We were looking at half bottles, and Andre suggested the Clos du Val, a Californian cabernet that very much enhanced the flavors in the food. He also encouraged us to linger after our entrees, bringing double espressos and making dessert suggestions. Our server listed off our choices and I decided to stay French and try the “bananas foster soufflé,” while Chris was craving gelato or sorbet but couldn’t decide, so the server brought a tasting bowl of different flavors. I was way too into my dessert to even ask him about the ice cream, and vice versa, so I’m sure his was good. Andre brought me this heaping souffle that was nicely browned. He broke into it with a serving spoon and, as I took the first bite, I realized it was the best soufflé I’d ever had. Melted dark chocolate swirled amidst the lightest, fluffiest banana-flavored yumminess. It was the perfect ending to a nearly perfect French meal. We finished our desserts, took another spin on the dance floor, and left with leftovers and roses in tow. I highly recommend Cavey’s for a romantic date night. It’s definitely on the pricey side, but it was well worth it on all counts.
One night we had an awesome dinner at Zinc, an eclectic restaurant with Asian tendencies run by Chef Denise Appel. K, a big fan of Chambord, invented a new drink for herself, which we have dubbed the Razzilla. It’s vanilla vodka with a splash of Chambord and a splash of soda over ice. We split the “Smoked Duck Nachos” which were amazing: chopped smoked duck was cooked until it caramelized, tossed with a chipotle sauce, served over crispy fried wontons and garnished with a lime crème. K chose the “Scottish Salmon and Shrimp Romanesco” which consisted of a generous and perfectly cooked piece of fish, I can’t remember how many shrimp, and a delicious wild rice/quinoa/golden raisin pilaf. I enjoyed perfectly prepared "Smoked Maine Diver Sea Scallops" served with chanterelle, pea and lobster risotto. Dessert was a chocolate tasting trio of mousse cake, pot de crème and a superb, rich, satiny dark chocolate sorbet over which we almost resorted to spoon sword-fights. Chef Appel certainly knows what she is doing. The menu is varied and reasonably priced, the service en pointe, and the food superb. Cheese lovers may want to visit, as there is a wide range of fresh cheeses including many local cheeses available.
Another night the person running the conference graciously invited me to join them at a reception at the Peabody Museum where we had the unique experience of enjoying a variety of finger foods among the dinosaurs. Still hungry after our noshing on apps we walked down to Tuscano Ristorante, a little Italian place adjoining the Gotham Citi Café club. One of only two parties, we enjoyed personalized and attentive service from our server as well as the manager. The server was full of suggestions, and when K ordered her Razzilla, she mentioned a similar drink made with Chambord, Amaretto and pineapple juice that she and her friends made up and called “Sex at My House.” The three of us decided to marry the two drinks and thus was born the great cocktail “Sex at Our House.” Beyond drinks, the mozzarella en carrozza was the lightest I ever had, with not only mozzarella but also ricotta cheese fried with what had to be panko breadcrumbs because they were nice and crunchy. We split that as well as beautiful, perfectly shaped fluffy gnocchi tossed simply with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. Dessert was out of the question, but we were offered after-dinner drinks on the house and invited to visit again soon.
On K’s last night in New Haven, Chris and I did what any decent Nutmeggers would do and took her to the world famous Frank Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street. This has been the home to New Haven-style pizza since 1925. No frills pies (start with the basic tomato pie and build your way up) and no frills service make it a must-do for the first-time visitor. Dessert from Libby's Italian Pastry Shop sealed the deal - cannolis, cookies, Italian ice and gelato are among the many fabulous choices.
Finally the weekend arrived and with it, our annual neighborhood St Patrick’s Day Progressive Party. The timing of this and the Easter holiday forced us to move our celebration to this past weekend, but it was a major success. Ten households take part, each making a dish and a cocktail, and we parade from house to house until the night ends. In keeping with the Irish theme, I decided to make Potato and Tarragon Soup. Here is what I did: The night before the party, I melted three tablespoons of butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. I chopped four green onions, 1 small white onion, and 4 garlic cloves which I sauteed in the butter for about 10 minutes, adding 2 tablespoons of water about half way through. I then added 6 chopped red potatoes and 4 cups chicken stock. I brought all this to a boil and then simmered it for about 15 minutes until the potatoes seemed tender. I mixed in about a tablespoon of chopped fresh tarragon and blended all of this with an immersion blender. This base was allowed to cool overnight. When our house was next in line, K and I scurried over a few minutes early to heat up the base and to finish off the soup. We seasoned it with salt and white pepper, then stirred in ½ cup whipping cream and ½ cup plain yogurt. Creamy and flavorful, yet light, the soup was a success. Since K was visiting, she too wanted to add to the festivities, so we also made her Broccoli Cheddar Cornbread. She has given me permission to share this recipe as well, so here it is. Saute one onion and 3 cloves of minced garlic in olive oil. Add in one box of frozen chopped broccoli or about 2 cups of chopped broccoli that you have already blanched. You want nice small soft but not mushy pieces that are spread throughout the cakey cornbread. In a large bowl, mix 2 boxes of cornbread mix (we both swear by Jiffy brand), ½ cup milk, 4 eggs, 8 ounces of cottage cheese and 1 cup of shredded cheddar. Pour the onion/garlic/broccoli mixture into the cornbread/cheese mixture and combine well. Pour into an 11x14 pan and top with about ½ cup additional cheddar cheese. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes. This was really awesome, especially served warm.
Those were the food highlights of a fun week spent with a great friend, a wonderful husband, and good neighbors. Here’s to all those things.
That said, sometimes a girl just needs a good, cheap steak. Now Chris is not a big red-meat-eater, so I don’t like to go all out to a classic steakhouse when I have that craving. Instead, I give in to the big corporate monster and go to Outback Steakhouse. I usually sit at the bar, chat with the amiable bartender, and dig in to what I consider the perfect steak: the 9-oz. Outback Special, which the menu can justifiably say is “a center cut sirloin, seasoned and seared to perfection.” They’ve got something in their “secret 17-spice recipe” that just hits the mark.
Consistency is key at corporate restaurants, and here is where Outback shines. It is only at this particular restaurant that I can be the anti-me; I top off going to a chain restaurant with ordering the exact same thing every single time I go. It’s against everything I stand for, but I do it all the same. How can I not? It’s a thing of perfection. My steak is always the right size and is always cooked exactly as I ordered it. These guys know what they’re doing.
Many people feel that the sides make the meal. It’s a close call at Outback. The special comes with a choice of sides, and I always choose the steamed vegetables, which are a nice medley of not-mushy carrots, broccoli, zucchini and snowpeas. The house salad with bleu cheese dressing is my other choice. They make their own croutons, and they are to die for. They also make their own salad dressing, and I find theirs to be among the best I’ve had, creamy but with plenty of bleu cheese chunks. Other ingredients include chopped cucumbers, red onions, shredded cheese and ripe red tomatoes, not to mention a nice iceberg/romaine mix. It’s really a great salad.
If I had to make one complaint, it would be the wine list. It’s not a great one, to be sure. Although there are several wines by the glass, none of them is one that can stand up to the seasonings of the steak. In fact, last night, I had a particularly terrible glass of Pinot Noir that tasted as if it had been opened six months ago. I switched to the decent-enough Black Opal Shiraz and was a little happier with that.
Back on a more positive note, I need to talk for a minute about the bread. They give you a mini-loaf of pumpernickel that is warm and delicious. But what’s better is their butter. It’s creamy and sweet, with a hint of honey. It’s so good that although I order the veggies to make it look like I’m eating something relatively healthy, I end up spreading that buttery goodness all over the vegetables. Yummy.
Speaking of unhealthy, I have reached the dessert paragraph. Sidney’s Sinful Sundae does it for me every time. Creamy vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted coconut, topped with what has to be homemade hot fudge, sliced strawberries and fresh, coat-the-roof-of-your-mouth whipped cream. Sinful is right. It is just soooooo good.
Chain restaurant, yes, but perfect every time. And no, they didn't pay me to say all these things.
The Windowed Hearth at the Lord Jeffery Inn, 30 Boltwood Avenue, Amherst, MA
Visited on: 17 March 2006
Having grown up in a nearby town, I always wanted to stay at the famed Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst, MA. When I had to attend a conference at UMASS Amherst last week, I did the next best thing. Rather than giving in to the buffet dinner, with its mass-produced food, cash bar, and schmoozing with the colleagues, I made a reservation for dinner at the Inn’s fine-dining option, The Windowed Hearth.
On the website, one can find a great explanation of the restaurant’s name: “In colonial times a windowed hearth served as a guiding light for travelers, beckoning from a distanced flickering assurance that warmth, hospitality and a fitting end to the day's journey were within reach.” The page goes on to promise an “offering of local products prepared with heartfelt care, a combination of the traditional with the innovative…the finest fare New England has to offer.” A large promise, indeed, but one that, by the end of the evening, I felt was definitely fulfilled.
It was freezing cold in downtown Amherst, and I could see my breath as I walked from my convenient parking space in a small lot across from the Inn. I entered at exactly 7 p.m., and the hardwood floors creaked the way they do in colonial homes. The front desk staff welcomed me with a smile and pointed me to the small, firelit room on my left, the one that I had walked right by. This was The Windowed Hearth. To my dismay, not a soul was present. Empty restaurants make me nervous. I wonder, “Does everyone else in the world know something I don’t?”
The host/server/bartender appeared. A courteous, handsome, warm young man, he was the consummate professional during my visit. After joking about my having a reservation, he sat me right in front of the roaring fire. He handed me the menu, and the winelist, and informed me that the restaurant doesn’t have specials. This was fine by me, because I had seen the menu online, and had been thinking about certain items since then.
The menu is not vast, but it is complete. We’ll start at the beginning. Appetizers range from $5 to $9.95 and include the traditional New England Clam Chowder, the ubiquitous Crab Cakes with Remoulade Sauce, and an interesting Baked Camembert Cheese, “topped with brown sugar, toasted almonds and honey oven baked and served with inn-made toast points.” I had my eye on the Lobster Ravioli, however. They were served in a pasta bowl, three large diamonds overlapping each other. The pasta had black stripes made of squid ink, and the contrast with the white plate was dramatic. There were large chunks of lobster in the warm, creamy filling, and the accompanying sauce, described on the menu as a sherried cream sauce, did not disappoint. To go with my appetizer, I had inquired about sparkling wines by the glass and was offered Cook’s Champagne. I don’t usually follow the white-with-seafood rule, as I am not a big fan of white wine, so I went ahead and ordered the Cook’s. It was delivered to me in a white wine glass, a service error to some, but a bonus to me, as it offered a much larger portion than a flute would have and complemented the raviolis well.
Entrée choices are very reasonably priced and included beef (Filet Mignon - $26, Tenderloin Tips - $21), chicken (Pecan Encrusted Chicken - $19), and several seafood choices (Herb Seared Shrimp - $21, Fire Roasted Salmon - $20, Grilled Scallops - $22). There was a unique version of surf-n-turf called One by Land, Three by Sea ($26), that was a petite filet mignon served with three lobster ravioli. According to the menu, their signature dish, priced at $21, is a 16 oz. Braised Lamb Shank that is “slow braised at low temperature in lamb stock and red wine flavored with garlic and green olives which results in remarkably tender and flavorful lamb.” Although it sounded quite delicious, I don’t do lamb.
Which brings us to the Culver Duck Breast ($20), my final decision. The menu informed me that the Culver is a strain of Long Island duckling known for its larger breast.. When it was delivered to me, I understood what they meant. Medallions of perfectly seared, medium-rare duck breast were fanned in such a way that they made a whole semi-circle on the large round plate. Never have I received so much duck for the buck. It was cooked to a spot-on medium rare and was fork-tender, well-seasoned, and simply delicious. In the center of the plate was a generous portion of creamy garlic mashed potatoes, and at 6 o’clock, five crisp, perfectly cooked asparagus spears. A demi-glaze made of cranberries and port wine, and a garnish of round red grapes not only gave the plate beautiful color, but enhanced the flavor of the duck. I followed the menu’s wine suggestion and partook in a glass of the very versatile red zinfandel, of which only one choice was available by the glass. Lush and lively, with strong dark berry and pepper undertones, the wine brought out the cranberry port glaze and was an excellent choice. I wish I knew the name of it!
I forced myself to finish the duck, leaving behind a few bites of potato and a couple of asparagus spears in doing so. The server cleared and brought the dessert list. I didn’t think I could do it, but I would give it a go. He ‘strongly recommended’ the Peppermint Ice Cream Pie, made with ice cream from a local dairy farm. This tugged at me. I am a fervent supporter of using local products, and had it been any flavor but peppermint, this would have sealed the deal. However, having had a French favorite for my main course, I settled on the Crème Brulee. Again, the portion size amazed me. I have had dozens of crème brulees in my life, always served in a shallow ramekins of varying shapes. The larger area of the shallow dish allows for more of what makes crème brulee such a prize – the burnt sugar. This version was served in what I can only call a “tea-cup without a handle.” Rich, thoroughly chilled, creamy and full of vanilla flavor, it was among the best I have had. Although there was less sugar, what was there was caramelized to the ideal crunchiness, and there was more of the delicious custard to enjoy in the larger-sized cup.
As I watched the fire flicker and sipped a cup of Earl Gray, I realized I was completely and utterly satisfied. I imagined the many travelers who, having been drawn in by the fire in the window, felt this same contentment after their meal. The food quality and freshness was excellent, the portions were large enough that I felt I received a deal for the price, and the service was first rate. I will most definitely be back to The Windowed Hearth.