Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day BBQ 2011

Memorial Day weekend for Andrew and me means the annual Sunday BBQ at his parents' house in Plymouth.

With Tom in charge of grilling...

...there's plenty to enjoy including hotdogs, veggie burgers for the lone vegetarian in our group, Polish kielbasa, and Portuguese chaurico and linguica (bonus points to anyone that can tell them apart on the grill, not including Tom!)

If that wasn't enough food for all the meat lovers in the crowd, Tom also had ribs going on a separate grill:

Tender ribs doused in barbecue sauce, yum!

Everyone was enjoying the sunny weather sitting out by the pool area (although Tom and Andrew's six-year-old cousin Meghan were the only ones brave enough to get into the 73 degree weather): 

Meghan and I escaped indoors at points to enjoy the air conditioning and to say hello to the only member of the family trapped indoors - AJ!

Since Meghan's sister Maddie was in Maine for the weekend (talk about alliteration), I think Meghan was thrilled to have a furry playmate:

Then, it was time for food!  The full spread included potato salad, the best deviled eggs ever, pesto pasta salad, Caesar salad, corn bread and Tom's famous baked beans:

I feel like my shooting angle over the pool fence makes us look like inmates filing up to the food line but let me assure you, the comparison ends there. Everything tasted fresh, homemade and delicious, enhanced by th fresh air!

Next, were the desserts. Thinking of all the food we ate yesterday still makes my stomach hurt. But yet, that didn't stop any of us from diving in!
From the top left corner, we had cherry clafoutis ( a French dessert I've read about but had never tried), brownies, lemon bars, a chocolate sundae cake, an ice cream sandwich cake made with layers of you-know-what and whipped cream, and finally, my contribution, chocolate chip cookie dough cupcakes (more to come these in a future post): 

Did we have a good Memorial Day weekend?
Good weather - Check!
Gracious hosts (thanks Tom and Charlotte!) - Check!
Fun people - (Starting with Mike and Jeanne on Thursday through the BBQ on Sunday) - Check!
Delicious food - Double check!
Am I dreading returning to work tomorrow? - Check!

I wish all weeks ended with long weekends...understatement of the year.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Berry Tempting" Raspberry and Strawberry Daiquiris

In a celebratory mood this weekend (nothing better than toasting the warm weather and a nice, long holiday weekend), I busted out our blender for the first time (another wedding gift, thanks Kelli and Alex) and pureed some fresh berries into delicious summer drinks.  The best part is that Andrew was out for a guy's night with Phu, Rich and Jason, which meant I didn't have to share these with anyone!

First off, I made some simple syrup by following these directions - I ended up boiling down six tablespoons of white sugar with 12 tablespoons of water, which resulted in enough syrup for two drinks.

I started off combining a few different recipes and ended up adjusting along the way.

Raspberry Daiquiri
1 cup of fresh raspberries (I'm guessing may 20 - 25 raspberries)
3 tablespoons simple syrup
2 oz white rum
1 oz peach schnapps (in my world, EVERYTHING tastes better with peach schnapps in it)
12 ice cubes
Squeeze half a lime (or at least 3 tablespoons of fresh lime juice)

Hitting my ice breaker button first, and then blend, I blended for 20 seconds until smooth.  Voila! I had this vision of loveliness:

 And...since it was the holiday weekend and all, I didn't stop with one drink. I liked the raspberry daiquiri, but didn't think it did justice to the subtle raspberry flavor (so I saved the rest of my berries to eat) and was a little irritated by all the tiny raspberry seeds.  The seeds ended up collecting on the bottom of my glass while drinking, so it wasn't like I was getting a full mouthful, but I actually might recommend straining your daiquiri if possible.

Next up, I switched to fresh strawberries and used the exact recipe above except substituted 1 cup of sliced strawberries (I had six gigantic strawberries which fit the bill and I'm guessing around 10 regular strawberries would work).

The seeds weren't as irritating in this version and the strawberry flavor came through loud and clear. In fact, my mouth is watering as I look at this picture.

Be warned, these are very filling but I'd like to think they aren't that bad for you, with mostly fruit and ice making up the whole of the drink. I'm also thinking that you could easily substitute Splenda for the simple syrup to save on calories.

So the next chance you get - really, any warm night this summer - treat yourself to a berry daiquiri!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hah-vahd Grad

One way to kick off a great Memorial Day weekend is to have a reunion with friends from afar!  Andrew and I had marked off May 26 for months when we knew Mike and Jeanne were going to be in Boston. Currently residents of Louisiana, they were in town to celebrate a very special occasion - Mike's graduation from Harvard with a doctorate in Political Science!

To celebrate such a momentous occasion, Jeanne picked Grill 23 & Bar, a place that I have heard many good things about but never had the chance to visit. When I first walked in and saw them (poor Andrew was stuck parking the car), I couln't resist referring to them as Dr. Mike and Jeanne Esquire, although Jeanne corrected me and said for the night, she was simply a proud Harvard wife.  What followed was a champagne toast, some excellent crab cake appetizers, delicious steaks and lots of reminiscing and catching up on each others' lives.

Dinner flew by and the service was flawless, except when the waiter kept trying to clear away Mike's creme brulee - Mike was kind enough to keep trying to tempt Jeanne into eating some of his dessert but wasn't going to let it go to waste (I had it for dessert as well and it was wonderful - vanilla bean specks throughout, a generous sized portion, and served in a wonderfully shallow dish so that there was endless supply of the burnt sugar topping).

The evening was mild, even at the time we left the restaurant (I'm guessing 9:30ish - 10 p.m.) and I told Mike and Jeanne that they had brought the nice weather in with them from Louisiana.  Next, we made our way over to an old favorite, Bukowski's.  We were a little over dressed for the bar but managed to settle in quite nicely at a table in the back:

And had ourselves many, many more drinks and laughs.  We actually closed down the place, and as an old broad, I can't tell you the last time I did that and had such a great time doing it!

That could also explain why it took all of Friday for me to recover - just getting up to eat was an accomplishment for me that day!

But cheers to Mike once again on an amazing accomplishment and for Jeanne hosting us for such a wonderful meal and night. We look forward to visiting them on their home turf sometime in the future (whether it's Oxford, MS, where they'll be moving to this summer or back to Lousiana in the fall to catch a LSU game) and getting a chance to see Marie walking and talking!

NYC Street Fair

Another thing I enjoy about visiting Manhattan is the brunch culture. It's just so easy to roll out of bed at anytime of the day and make your way to a good brunch place or even a corner bodega for fresh bagels.

Amanda took us to a great brunch place with a Belgian flair - Markt on Sixth Avenue.  We were up relatively early and so we were able to score an awesome table at the open windows to enjoy the only fully sunny day of the weekend.  I didn't take pictures at this meal (my attempt to act like an average citizen at some meals rather than apporaching them with a blogger mindset) but the bread basket and the potato patties were stand-outs of the meal.  From our table at Markt (you can actually see the open window for Markt all the way on the right hand side of the picture), we could see a street fair in progress and a vendor selling flannel pajama bottoms, of all things:

We got to see more of the street fair as we walked to and from West Elm (that's Andrew carrying a rug and looking back, wondering what's taking me so long to walk with them):

I almost regretted eating brunch when I saw all these neat stands - can you imagine being too full for a crepe?

Classic NYC street food - Gyros (don't even get the debate started on how to pronounce these, I've heard it all!):

Fresh fruit smoothies that looked extremely refreshing on a warm city walk:

And one of my all time favorites, fresh grilled corn on the cob:

Overall, there was an eclectic mixture of vendors selling things from rugs to artwork to shirts whose LED lights moved in time to music but I clearly found the food vendors to be of the most interest! I wish Boston had more of these types of events...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blue Smoke

A visit to NYC would not be complete without meeting up Camie, who is kind enough to trek into Manhattan to have dinner with us!  As a UNC-Chapel Hill grad, Camie is no stranger to BBQ and recommended Blue Smoke for dinner.

One of the things I love about Manhattan is how many great restaurants are within walking distance - sure, it's equally as easy to catch a cab to go places but I love the fact that if you're willing to walk some city blocks, your own two feet can take you to some fantastic food. So walk we did, and we ended up arriving within minutes of Camie.

Here's a picture of my dining companions for the night (without flash):

And with flash (Camie is making one of her classic expressions, so which is why I posted the no-flash photo so at least she looks normal in one of the pics!)

Any place that uses towels for napkins is guaranteeing some good, messy BBQ!

As a table, we skipped ordering separate entrees and decided to split a random assortment of appetizers, dishes and sides!  First up was homemade BBQ potato chips with a blue cheese and bacon dip:

One of my favorites for the night - Crispy Chili Crusted Calamari with Charred Red Pepper Mayo:

I didn't think I was going to enjoy this much but Camie and Amanda insisted on ordering it and I was so glad in the end - Shrimp and Organic Grits, with bacon, cremini mushroom, roasted tomatoes and scallions.  So good and even a non-grits fan like myself will scrape up every last bit when it has such a flavorful gravy on top:

Camie recommended the spicy cheese fries - I don't remember any spiciness but I adored that cheese sauce. I tend to prefer fake cheese (sacrilege, I know) over real cheese on things like nachos and fries because of the texture but this cheese was oh-so-thick and good:

Of course, you can't go to a BBQ joint without ordering some BBQ! We wisely went with the Rib Sampler, which gave us a taste of Memphis Baby Back Ribs, Kansas City Spareribs and Texas Salt & Pepper Ribs:

To round out the meal, we also got a basket of cornbread. I have to complain about the measly portion size (we almost ordered another basket right away) but with all the other food we ended up sharing, a bite of cornbread each ended up being all that we could fit in!

So yes, you can find some decent BBQ in NYC.  And dinner and drinks with good friends is always a good time!

Scenes from Magnolia Bakery

On our first day in NYC, Andrew and I made plans to meet up for lunch with a college friend of his.  Eric wanted to stick close to work, and had gotten a recommendation from coworkers for Ted's Montana Grill.  Andrew and I had never heard of this chain but it's apparently a Ted Turner (of CNN fame) restaurant known for good burgers and bison beef. Bison as in buffalo.  I didn't bust out the camera for this meal, but let me just say that I was brave enough to try their bison sliders and I found them very tasty and juicy. Buffalo meat is described as being "sweeter" and gamier than beef, but honestly, I couldn't really taste the difference.

We always try to meet up with Eric for lunch when we visit NYC on a weekday, and I knew from a previous lunch with him that Magnolia Bakery was close to the financial district that he works in.  It was way too packed and chaotic the last time we had stopped by (around the holiday season) but this time (perhaps due to the rainy weather), the crowds were more manageable within the tiny bakery.
There were tempting displays of bars:

and all sort of decadent cheesecakes:

But like most of the other tourists in the place, we were interested in this section:

I was pleased to see the "Japan Cupcake" which was simply vanilla cake/frosting with a red raspberry on top - not only was this my favorite flavor combo for cake, but $1 of its purchase would go towards the Japan Society's disaster relief efforts:

There were around eight different flavors to choose from:

So I ended up picking two (the aforementioned white "Japan" cupcake and pistachio) and Andrew went with the Smores cupcake and the German Chocolate:

We carted these beauties home in the rain and exercised great self-control, and waited for Amanda to get home from work to eat them. We sliced each cupcake into thirds and did a mini taste test of sorts. While all were decent, this was another cupcake place that I felt was a bit overrated.  I think the best feature was the airy texture of the frosting - it was lighter than most cupcake frostings but I didn't think it had much flavor in any of the four cupcakes.  The cake texture leaned towards a finer grain and was bordering on being too dry. The only one that had a strong flavor was the Smores cake, which tasted of graham cracker, but overall, I think we'll be trying a different cupcake place the next time we're in town.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hello, Midtown Manhattan!

One reason for my blogging silence over the weekend? Andrew and I both took a day off from work (it was my first vacation day of the year, believe it or not) and drove to Manhattan on Thursday night to visit Amanda.

Did I mention that Amanda recently moved and now lives in midtown, one block away from Madison Square Garden, Penn Station and amusingly enough, Koreatown! That's her building (modern one) peeking over the top:

And, did I mention that her building is a new construction? There are actually still floors being finished but fortunately for Amanda, the spa and gym levels are already complete. As in, she can sit in the hot tub and look out at the New York City skyline!

The funny thing is that I have no photos of the interior of Amanda's apartment - it's a studio, so when Andrew and I arrived with all of stuff and you add in an air mattress and our clothes strewn everywhere, it was too messy to take a nice picture. Let me assure you that Amanda has been hard at work decorating and even had some pieces arrive while we were there.

One of my favorite things about her new place (besides the stainless steel appliances or the in-apartment washer and dryer) is the view - it's simply amazing. She has a corner unit, floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the apartment and this view right outside.  We arrived around midnight on a foggy evening, and the Empire State Building just looked amazing.

I was amused to see that the building changes colors for different occasions. Can you guess which baseball series was in process while we were visiting? You guessed it, the Empire State Building stayed impartial by honoring the Yankees on one side and the Mets on the other.

And yes, that's the Chrysler building peeking out in the distance. Again, just picture sitting in a hot tub looking at this fabulous city scenery!

So that was basically our first night there - more NY culinary adventures and explorations to follow!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bacon Cheddar Popovers

Soup for dinner? Sounds kind of boring, right? Not when you've got these lovelies accompanying your meal!  I just love when something is so easy to make and tastes sooo good!

I've got my mother-in-law to thank as inspiration for these - we were visiting one weekend and she had us sample some mini blue cheese popovers she had made. I bit into one and was instantly wondering why I didn't make these wonderfully eggy rolls more often.

Thinking about what I had on hand in the fridge, I realized I had bacon crumbles (sold in the pizza section in Shaws and my favorite cheat for adding bacon to a recipe) and shredded cheddar cheese - two flavors that always work well with together.

As a confession, my popovers weren't so much light and airy like traditional rolls - instead, they were dense and in your face with lots of salty, bacon-y goodness. I was fine with this texture "failure"! Just look at how moist and eggy it looks.

When I bit into one, I instantly thought it tasted like a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich in muffin form (one of my favorite things in the world) and that these would work well on their own in a brunch menu.

Bacon Cheddar Popovers (from Lobolita)
4 Tbsp Diced Raw Bacon (or around 3 oz of cooked bacon crumbles from Shaws)
4 whole eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup grated sharp cheese (I think I ended up using around 1 cup total)
I added 1/2 teaspoon pepper and a couple of shakes of cayenne pepper as well

  1. Place one oven rack about 5 inches about the bottom element. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup metal muffin tin.
  2. Distribute diced bacon among 12 muffin cups and put tin in oven while it preheats so that the bacon browns and sizzles.
  3. Break eggs into a medium mixing bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Add milk, salt, and flour (and pepper and cayenne pepper). I also threw in a handful of cheese for good measure! Mix lightly, making a lumpy batter.
  4. When the oven is preheated and the bacon is brown and sizzling, carefully take pan out of the oven and pour batter into muffin cups, filling each one about 3/4 full. Sprinkle grated cheddar cheese on top of each muffin cup. Return pan to oven.
  5. Bake at 450F for 20 minutes. Adjust temperature to 350F and bake an additional 10 - 15 minutes. Popovers are ready when they are puffed and browned and the centers are firm.
  6. Take muffin tin out of oven and run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of each popover to release. Serve hot.  (Note: Grease your pan REALLY well - I thought I did, but my popovers ended up sticking to my muffin tin, perhaps since it was older and didn't have much of a non-stick surface?)
 I had enough batter to make 12 regular sized popovers and 10 mini popovers (made in a mini muffin tin) just for fun:
The best thing is that the popovers reheat wonderfully in the oven and taste just as good the second day (and believe me when I say we only had popovers leftover since I forbid Andrew from eating the whole batch on the first night!)

Weeknight Pasta & Bean Soup

It's taken me a while to post this recipe and of course, as I type this, the weather has turned in Boston and it is warm, humid and muggy.  Ugh.  Not that I'm complaining about the end to the two weeks of cloudiness and rain, but still, how does it jump twenty degrees in one night?

Of course, this being Boston, you can just "wait five minutes" for the weather to change again.  Thus, I share a simple and hearty soup that works well when you need a quick dinner and we're having another cold, rainy day.

Weeknight Pasta and Bean Soup (from one of my old issues of Cook's Country)
Serves 6 to 8

2 (16 oz) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
8 ounces hot Italian sausage (about 2 links), casings removed (I used a package of Aidell's chicken sausage I had on hand, andouille flavor)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped roesmary (I left this out because I didn't hae any)
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1 cup ditallini or other small pasta shape (small elbow macaroni for me)
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil (also left out)
1 cup grated parmesan cheese (I forgot this ingredient at the end and the soup still tasted great!)

  1. Puree half of beans and 2 cups of broth in food processor or blender until smooth; set aside. Cook sausage in large pot over medium-high heat, breaking up pices with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about five minutes (I simply diced all the sausage and left one link as slices).  Drain sausage on paper towel-lined plate.
  2. Add oil and onions to fat in pot and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, remaining whole beans, remaining broth, pureed bean mixture, cooked sausage, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until tomatoes and onions are very soft, about 15 minutes.
  3. About 10 minutes before soup is done, bring 2 quarts water to boil in large saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta, then add to soup. Stir in basil and Parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Serve.
Note: For making ahead, soup can be refrigerated for 3 days, but do not add pasta. Store pasta and soup in separate containers and combine just prior to serving.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bananas Foster Cake

Yesterday, I described how my fascination with lighting rum on fire led to a life-long love of Bananas Foster.

With a few ripe bananas calling my name and a special occasion to celebrate (a belated Mother's Day celebration for Charlotte, since Andrew's parents were visiting family in the South the previous weekend), I did a quick google search and found the recipe for these lovelies.

Individual Bananas Foster Cakes (from Cook’s Illustrated via Lottie and Doof)

(It supposed to make 8 cakes but with my slightly smaller ramekins (5.5 oz), I had enough batter for 10)

14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 14 pieces and softened
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons dark rum
3 ripe, firm bananas, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup whole milk
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease eight 6-ounce ramekins, then set on a large rimmed baking sheet.

Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add 1/3 cup of the brown sugar and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thoroughly combined, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in 2 tablespoons of the rum. Spoon a generous tablespoon of the sauce into the bottom of each ramekin.

Layer the banana slices on top of the sauce inside each ramekin.

I knew these were going to make a pretty pattern once the cakes were reversed!

Whisk the remaining rum, the milk, eggs, and vanilla together in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, whisk the remaining 1/3 cup brown sugar, the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and zest together. Using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat the remaining 8 tablespoons butter into the flour mixture and continue to beat the mixture until it resembles moist crumbs, 1 to 3 minutes.

Beat in all but 1/4 cup of the milk mixture, then increase the speed to medium and beat the batter until
smooth, light, and fluffy, 1 to 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and slowly beat in the remaining 1/4 cup milk mixture until the batter looks slightly curdled (this didn’t happen for me), about 15 seconds.

Give the batter a final stir with a rubber spatula to make sure it is thoroughly combined. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared ramekins, smooth the tops, and gently tap the ramekins on the counter to settle the batter. Bake the cakes on the rimmed baking sheet until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out with a few crumbs attached, 25 to 30 minutes.

Immediately run a small knife around the edges of the cakes, gently invert each ramekin onto an individual serving plate, and let sit until the cakes release themselves from the ramekins, about 5 minutes. Remove the ramekins and serve with vanilla ice cream.  These came out fantastic.  Moist with a gooey top and tons of banana flavor. They just wouldn't be the same without a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. I swear, I didn't even miss the flaming rum this time around!

The best thing about these is even if you happen to overload your ramekins (ahem), and the batter flows over the sides and looks ugly, it doesn't matter. It's like magic, once you turn those ramekins over and the cake slides out (which it did immediately for me), it looks picture perfect and ready to be topped with some ice cream.