Sunday, October 31, 2010

Project: Halloween

It's Halloween! There are dozens of little kids in our new neighborhood, and I'll be stationed at the front door all night to hand out candy to the vampires and princesses and Transformers.

I carved a small pumpkin to put out front, just to make sure kids know this is a house worth stopping at. I think he's adorable! He needed a friend, so I used an acorn squash and made him one. Can't wait to see how they look all lit up tonight!

Restaurant Night: Fleming's

Celebration time!

With the sale of the townhouse, we decided to splurge on a fancy celebratory dinner. My only requirements were that it be fancier than our usual spots and have a wine list because celebrating something this big requires a decent glass of wine. So I left the decision up to Dave, and he picked Fleming's in Baltimore.

We didn't dress up, just headed there straight after work, arriving about 10pm. Garmin got us there easily - it's right near the inner harbor area of the city surrounded by dozens of other really fancy-looking restaurants that I will need to investigate for future outings.

The hostess greeted us and congratulated us on the sale of our house as she walked us to our table - Dave had mentioned it when calling for reservations, and I thought it was nice that they brought it up. The menu was pretty simple - steak, steak, steak, and some options for potatoes and sides. We decided to go all out and try appetizers through dessert, because how often will we celebrate selling a house? (It better not happen again for another 30 years, anyway)

Our wine selection was a Cab Sauvignon from Château Ste-Michelle in the Columbia valley (pacific northwest). We first had it a couple of years ago for my birthday dinner at Hy's, a fancy steak joint in Vancouver, and we loved it. All of a sudden we're finding it at restaurants we're trying, and it's great to be able to enjoy it again.

We got mushroom ravioli and crab cakes for our starters, and they were fabulous. I think the sauce for the pasta was butter and pureed mushrooms. Incredible. The crab cakes were delicious too - this means a lot coming from a woman who hates seafood. The cakes were so crispy outside and the spices were just right and the red pepper fancy sauce on the plate was delicious. I kept picking at them even though they were technically not my appetizer, but Dave was more entertained than annoyed.

And then, steak happened. We both got the filet mignon and it was butter. I ordered it medium (I know the foodies will gnash their teeth and cry that it's a waste of steak unless it's bleeding on me, but blah on them) and it was soft and pink in the middle and seared and salty on the outside and just plain wonderful. I got the big one but probably should have chosen the little one, because it was a lot of steak! I was going to try the baked potato but our server (Derek) told us about the Lyonnaise potatoes that were the special that night, and so we shared an order of those instead. Chunks of potato and onion fried up in olive oil - absolutely delicious, but for what he called a "family style side" it was a very small portion. No matter, we were extremely full by the end anyway.

Not that we let that keep us from ordering dessert. We could have shared dessert, but we went crazy and each got our own crème brulée. I have a hard time admitting this because of my love of all things chocolate, but I think that a well-made crème brulée, with real flecks of real vanilla, is at the near-top of my favorite desserts list.

Service was impeccable the whole night. We were visited a couple of times by important folks - an owner and a manager, I think. Someone took our picture for us to commemorate our celebration for selling our house (everyone who spoke to us all night knew why we were there, which I though was a very nice touch), and we got a free print of it to take home.

Best celebration night ever. It was all wonderful and we have to go back. Very pricey, though, so we'll be keeping it for fancy-pants occasions. But I can't have a steak like that and then never go back. It's on the must-return list.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Goodbye, townhouse!

Our dear old townhouse is finally in someone else's hands. After six months or so on the sad, slow housing market, we found some buyers and made everything official on Friday. As much as I enjoyed living there and calling it home, and will always cherish the memories of our time there, it's feeling very nice to no longer be paying a mortgage on a home we're not using. When I got the call at work telling me it went well and we no longer owned a townhouse, I bounced with joy because of the weight that's come off my shoulders.

Now we get to focus on the new house and making it the home of our dreams. It's funny but now that the pressure's off I feel like we can start being giddy newlyweds. I was so scared we'd be trapped with that old place forever because of the housing market - it was hard to be cheerful and optimistic knowing we were still throwing money at that place while trying to enjoy living at the new place. But all that is over now and it's wonderful!

Here's to having only one mortgage!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Project: Doorbell

Our new home came with its own shiny old doorbell. It was set to play "For he's a jolly old fellow" every time someone pushed the button, but it was buggy and usually all we got were the first two notes. We had "boo-doop". for a doorbell. If you pushed the button too hard, you could get "boop" instead. Now, boop does not a doorbell make. Even boo-doop is pretty pathetic. If you were upstairs, or if you were to sneeze while someone was at the front door, you would miss the doorbell.

"Did you hear a boo-doop?"

"No, I said "achoo".

"Really? I thought there was at least a boop somewhere."

"Just a sneeze, I think? Should we check the door?"

....Meanwhile, the pizza man has walked away and we starve tonight.

When the nice guys from the Home Depot replaced our front door last week, they replaced the button part of the doorbell, but it didn't fix the problem with the sound. We had a beautiful new brushed nickel boo-doop-er. Sigh.

The husband was stuck at home all day yesterday dealing with issues relating to the sale of our old place (keep your fingers crossed - we're almost there!), and he apparently decided to tackle the doorbell. Frankly, I'm surprised I didn't come home to find him in the workroom with goggles, a Dremel, and a screaming doorbell in pieces on the bench. If it's electronic, he usually likes to gut it and rebuild it. Dr. Frankenstein for gadgets. But instead, he just installed a new doorbell. Not as interesting a project to report, but the bell now goes "ding-dong" like a proper doorbell should. It has an actual bell in it - how delightfully old-school!

Of course, I then stood outside for 5 minutes jabbing at the doorbell to hear it chime. Because I like buttons. And bells.

I noticed that the old doorbell has not been discarded. It may still be autopsied and/or dismembered. Perhaps I will come home one day and hear my dishwasher going boo-doop, because it thinks I'm a jolly old fellow but it can't get all the words out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What's for dinner: Cranberry Pork Chops

Pork chops were on sale last week, so I bought a family-size pack and decided I'd figure out a way to make them interesting. Pork chops are my least favorite way to eat pig (that wonderful, magical, bacon-based animal), likely because the pork chops of my childhood were fried up in a pan and plopped on a plate beside some instant mashed potatoes without much fanfare or dress-up. And they're boring like that. why do you think I added enough ketchup to my mashed potatoes to make them pink?

No real recipe, because I pretty much winged it, but if you were making this you'd need:

Some pork chops (mine were boneless, thin)
Fresh cranberries (roughly chopped, it's fine if they're mostly left whole because cranberries are hard to chop)
Orange marmalade
Ground cloves

I seasoned some chops with salt and pepper and then browned them in a pan with a little butter. Then I moved them to a glass baking dish. I mixed up the cranberries and marmalade in a bowl - I didn't measure anything, I just put as much as I thought I'd need to put a blob of mixture on each chop. It was more cranberry than marmalade, though. The marmalade was mostly to hold the cranberries together. I mixed in a pinch of cloves - not too much because I didn't want that to be the overwhelming flavor.

After spooning a blob of this mixture onto each chop, I baked them in the oven at 325 for about 15-20 minutes (check the temp with a thermometer to know if they're done).

They turned out delicious! The cloves really enhanced the tartness of the cranberry and marmalade. I loved that it wasn't sweet. If the chops were the thick kind, this might have been a good mix to stuff them with after butterflying them. As it was, this was more of a relish on top of the chops, which was nice but maybe it would have been nice as a more liquidy sauce - not sure what I'd have to tweak to make a sauce out of it, though. Possibly heating the mixture in a saucepan with some cranberry or orange juice to thin it out a little... maybe I'll try that next time!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010. Part 3: Veggies

This was easy.

I opened a can of peas*.
I opened a can of corn.
I drained them and dumped them in bowls and nuked them.

The end.
P.S. I also put fancy spoons in the bowls to jazz them up a little.

*I would have preferred frozen peas because their texture is so much better, but because it was such a busy stressful day, the can was the easy route.

Thanksgiving 2010. Part 2: Sweet Potatoes

American Thanksgiving has a few major differences from the Canadian version (besides the pilgrim dudes in the hats with the buckles - we don't have those). For example, sweet potato casserole was new to me when I came to Maryland. It has variations, but it's essentially seasoned mashed sweet potatoes baked in the oven with little marshmallows melty and browned on top. My in-laws do it very well, but it's not what I'm used to, so this was my chance to show everyone my way. I kept my sweet potatoes very simple for my Thanksgiving dinner.

I peeled several sweet potatoes and cut them into rounds, then cut each round in four to make triangle-ish shapes. I was trying to make them look pretty. I tossed them with olive oil and thyme and rosemary, and some salt and pepper. Then they went onto a cookie sheet for about a half hour at 325 - the amount of time needed totally depends on how thick the slices are, so I checked them often with a fork. If they overcook, they fall apart. I stirred them around a couple of times as they cooked, too, so all the sides had a chance to brown a bit against the cookie sheet.

I made them the day before Thanksgiving and reheated them in the microwave, because my oven is very small and nothing else could fit in there with the turkey. I think they lost a little by being nuked - they taste so wonderful when they're freshly roasted and have some slightly crispy bits. It's my absolute favorite way to eat sweet potatoes, and I cook them like this often.

Thanksgiving 2010. Part 1: Stuffing

I saw no need to wait until November for Thanksgiving, since my internal Canadian-made clock was telling me to crave turkey once October arrived. Sure, the in-laws were surprised by the invitation to Thanksgiving at my place, a month early, and the supplies were harder to come by since it's not quite turkey season in Maryland yet, but I was going to make it happen.

I'll be stretching out the Thanksgiving posts because it's a lot to report (and read) in one shot. And no pictures until the end, because I want it to be a surprise! Ok, that's really because I didn't manage to take pictures of the process, since I had my hands up a turkey's butt for at least a portion of that morning and it's hard to work a camera in that situation. Butter and electronics don't mix.

Let us begin with the stuffing!

Mom's recipe called for two boxes of "Grissol" brand seasoned stuffing breadcrumbs, but I couldn't find that here. I had to tweak the recipe to work with what I did have, so I ended up with:

One 15 oz bag of seasoned stuffing mix
One large onion, diced
5 ribs of celery, diced
1 stick (1/2 cup) of butter
Some sage, thyme, and black pepper

I could have gone totally hands-on and made breadcrumbs from scratch, but this was my first try at an entire Thanksgiving dinner all by myself, and I needed all the shortcuts I could get.

I fried up an onion and all that celery in the 1/2 cup of butter, dumping in some sage and thyme till it smelled really, really good. I would guess about a tsp of thyme and a little less of ground sage. I added some fresh-ground pepper, mostly because I love my pepper mill and like to use it for everything. I stopped when the veggies started to soften, but I left them with some crunch because I like that in my stuffing. If you don't like crunch, feel free to cook the life out of your celery and onion.

I dumped the stuffing bag in the biggest mixing bowl I had and slowly added 2 cups of warm chicken broth per the package directions. The directions actually said water, but why do that when you can use broth? I mixed in the buttery onions and celery from the pan and tossed it so the crunchy bits were evenly distributed.

The next step, of course, was to stuff the bird. I mostly tried to use a huge spoon, because the wet stuffing and the cold insides of a turkey's body cavity gross me out a little, but I ended up getting my hands in because the spoon wasn't getting in there properly. Maybe if I could have stood the turkey on his head it would have worked, but I didn't have a turkey-holding assistant.

I was surprised to see that I had stuffing left over, since the bag said it was for a 14-16lb turkey and mine was bigger than that. Maybe I didn't pack the bird efficiently enough. Either way, I was glad, because I don't like in-the-bird stuffing. It's wet and tastes like turkey guts. I like mine cooked outside the bird, so it can get crunchy on top. I buttered an 8x8 pan, filled it with stuffing, and ended up cooking it for 20 minutes at about 325, then kicking the broiler on for a couple of minutes to brown the top. Deliciousness. Next time I will make more stuffing so I can have a bigger pan full of the good kind.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Roast chicken (and purple rice)

I decided to make a roast chicken this weekend in preparation for the Thanksgiving dinner I'm hosting next weekend for the in-laws. I had a recipe from my good friend Tasha, but I ended up going with a variation on my Mom's usual way instead. I'll get to yours soon, Tasha! I promise!

First of all it was a much bigger chicken than the recipe called for. Almost twice the weight. So it took much longer to cook, leaving us with an extremely late dinner. Luckily I tried this on the weekend, so it wasn't too bad. Had I tried this after work, we'd have been eating around 1am!

Roasty Chicken

I took the guts out of the chicken and rinsed it off and patted it dry. I snipped off some sprigs from my thyme, sage and oregano plants in the sunroom, minced them, and then stirred them into a small bowl (a little over 1/4 cup) of olive oil with some salt and fresh pepper. I'd say it approximated a tablespoon of each spice, so it looked like oiled herbs instead of herbed oil. I cut 3 ribs of celery into inch-long pieces, and a large onion into rough wedges. Those went into the cavity along with the juice from one squeezed lemon. I used a trick I got from Rachael Ray and microwaved the lemon for a few seconds before squeezing it, and it helped get a lot more juice out of it. Then I rubbed the oily mixture all over the outside of the chicken and stuck it in the oven at 350 for what seemed like forever. It was a nearly 8 pound chicken, and it took about two and a half hours. I kept checking it with the meat thermometer and it just never got to the right temperature, so I just left it there until it did. After a while I needed to put foil over the breast because it was getting too brown.

It did end up delicious, though. We ate a ton of it that first night, and there was plenty for leftovers afterwards.

Purple Rice

For this I followed a recipe from "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman, which Tasha gave to us as a wedding present. The real name for this is "Pilaf with Wine and Tomatoes" but, well, you'll see.

The recipe is:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1 1/2 cups rice
1 cup dry white wine (red will also do fine*) *you may be seeing where this is leading
2 cups chicken stock
Small can diced tomatoes

I cooked the onion in the oil until it got soft, then stirred in the rice to coat it completely. Then I added the wine. I used red because I had some left over from a few nights before. I let it cook down for a couple of minutes , then added the stock and tomatoes (I drained the tomatoes, even though the recipe says you don't have to). I let it simmer on medium for about 15-20 minutes - check often, because when the liquid is gone the rice should be done, and if you leave it longer you'll get a crust of burned rice at the bottom of the pot.

The flavor was amazing! It tasted quite a bit like wine, which I enjoyed. The only weird thing is that it was completely purple because I used red wine! If you think purple rice will weird you out, use white wine and I'm sure it'll be just as good. We were completely entertained by eating purple rice, though, so I think I'll always use red for this recipe.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

What's for Dinner: Broccoli Cheddar Soup

I wanted to find a good broccoli & cheddar soup recipe because our CSA delivery included a huge bunch of floppy broccoli, and I couldn't figure out another way to eat it without the floppiness bugging me. I found some recipes online claiming to be copies of Panera Bread's famous Broccoli Cheddar soup, so I took the best one and tweaked it to my liking. The result was incredible and I have so many people asking me about it, I figured maybe I should give it to the Internet. Fly, little recipe, fly!

Awesome BroccoCheddar Soup:

1/2 large onion, diced
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups whole milk
2 cups chicken stock (or veg broth)
1 pound fresh broccoli, chopped to bits (use stems too)

1 cup carrots, julienned
8 ounces grated sharp cheddar
salt and pepper to taste


Saute onion in a pat of butter. Set aside, because it's easier to make a roux without onions in the way. Melt the butter in your pot and stir in flour using a whisk. Keep whisking over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until you have a lovely paste. Stir constantly and slowly add the milk, then the chicken/veg stock, whisking like crazy. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the broccoli, carrots and onions. Cook over low heat until the veggies are tender, about 15 minutes if you've cut the pieces pretty small. Test tenderness with a fork. Puree using a stick blender, or use a regular blender, in batches. Return to pot over low heat and add the grated cheese; stir until well blended. Serve with crusty baguette, or don't bother making this soup at all. :p

The best thing about this recipe is that it's super flexible. Keep some extra milk/broth nearby in case you decide it's too thick when you're done. The second time I made it I had more broccoli so I used it all, and needed to add some more liquid after the veg-cooking phase. I tried using half sharp cheddar and half lowfat cheddar, and I recommend against it. the lowfat stuff doesn't melt worth a damn and you get weird stringy cheese bits. Still tasty but looks funny. I also recommend adding more carrots, but until I get a mandoline slicer I'm julienning by hand and that's bloody tedious. I suppose you could go to a salad bar and get a bunch of pre-shredded carrot to make your life easier.