Friday, January 30, 2015

Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

The weekend before my latest round of stomach distress, we baked cookies. I spent a lot of time that Saturday night & Sunday morning wondering if I even wanted a dessert for the week because I just wasn't feeling good but then Sunday afternoon when SP asked again I thought, well, of course I'll want dessert during the week even if it doesn't interest me right this second. But I wanted something quick and easy, like bar cookies, and something in an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 pan. Not a huge 9 x 13 pan of something. I did a quick search for bar cookie recipes and found this one from Martha Stewart: Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars.
They sounded good and pretty simple. It gave us another chance to make caramel. The first time we tried was for this Upside Down Nectarine Cake with Salted Caramel. It was just an OK cake, not something we really have the desire to make again. We are pretty sure part of the meh-ness is that we didn't cook our caramel long enough. This time we were determined to get a dark amber color.
It takes a lot longer than you think. And a lot of attention. And patience. Constantly using a pastry brush to brush the sides of the pot to keep crystals from forming. Wondering just how dark amber is, should I keep simmering or stop, am I burning it, when is it done?! Once we decided enough was enough, took it off the heat, and added the butter, cream, and salt, it looked like a lovely light brown caramel color, so we figured we did better than last time. But maybe next time, we'd simmer the water & sugar even longer.
Creamy caramel-chocolate sauce to pour over the baked shortbread layer.
Ready for the refrigerator.
These are really yummy and really rich. We cut them into 16 squares, but next time, I'd cut them into 32 smaller squares. The sea salt sprinkled on top adds that terrific salty bite. The bottom layer is simply shortbread and the chocolate layer is like a layer of fudge.
But these poor cookies. They are victims of my stomach. After I got sick Monday night, we tossed them into the freezer because I knew I wasn't going to want this rich & fudgy of a dessert for a week or two. I forgot to photograph them before freezing them, so it wasn't until earlier this week that I pulled 2 out and took their photo. The sea salt doesn't seem to have handled the freezing especially well. It looks like it kind of melted into the chocolate, leaving behind a salty, white circle. The cookie part and fudge part taste fine, and the sea salt tastes fine, it just doesn't look as pretty as it did before the freezer.
These are still a little too fudgy rich for my stomach, so SP has been snacking on tiny bites whenever he goes low. I've been sticking to popcorn for my evening dessert/snack. I gave a few of these cookies to my mom and when she and dad stopped by today, they both said the cookies were very good but very rich.

We'd make these again, probably for a party because even this small of a pan is a bit too much for just the two of us given the fudgy richness.

Recipe here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. SP finally got to use the snowblower we bought last February! And not just once but twice! He said it made clearing the driveway so much easier and faster. His step counter when he shovels snow shows a heck of a lot more steps than when he uses the snowblower. I suppose fewer steps = less exercise = not so great but the snowblower saved his hands and back from a lot of wear and tear and pain. He wasn't as sore or tired as usual.

2. This past week I read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I'm not sure how I feel about it. It's very sad and depressing. It made me think about a lot of different issues. But none of the characters is especially likable so I just didn't care about them, I spent a lot of time being annoyed with them.

3. It's chicken noodle soup week. The last couple of pots we've made have been really tasty. We've been keeping the noodles separate and adding them on a per bowl basis. That way they don't absorb too much broth while sitting in the refrigerator and we can control the quantity of pasta in our soup (I like more, SP likes very little).

4. Justified is back! Love Raylan & Boyd but sad it's the last season.

5. The Americans is back, too.

6. Last Saturday night, after our show & dinner date, we cuddled up on the couch and discovered that we didn't have any TV to catch up on. We didn't want to start a new series so we decided to watch a mindless movie. Very mindless. The Expendables 2. Sadly, SP tried to use his mind and found all sorts of inconsistencies in the plot, the action, everything.

7. This weekend is the Super Bowl. I don't care about the game. We'll be watching for the commercials. I'm much more interested in what we'll make for game time (commercial time?) food. Pizza? Nachos? Tacos? Subs? Dip? Multiple dips? Breads? Cheeses? Cheese Dips? Cauliflower in cheese sauce? Mac & cheese? Fried cheese? Cheese on everything? Lately I've been craving salty and crunchy much more than sweet. It seems that everyday a new salty, fatty, unhealthy treat idea pops into my mind and I want them all. Last night I wanted Fritos dipped in cheese sauce. I had to settle for air popped popcorn with butter & salt.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

German Potato Salad

When I was a child, mom did the cooking. It wasn't that dad couldn't or wouldn't cook. He worked. Mom was a stay at home mom. She had dinner ready when dad got home. On summer weekends dad would grill. On Christmas Eve he was in charge of the ribs and Williamsburg BBQ Sauce. And once or twice during the cold, snowy winters, dad would make German Potato Salad.
I'm not sure why German Potato Salad was dad's job. My mom made regular potato salad. Mom did a lot of cooking. She could have easily whipped this up. If I recall correctly, she would fry the bacon and dad would do the rest of this dish. Maybe dad always made it because it was something my grandma (his mom) always made? She's the German side of the family. Except that I don't remember my grandma ever making this dish. Only dad.
Whatever the case, I remember my dad making this one Sunday in our first home. I was probably in first grade. My brother and I stayed in a corner of the dining room, peeking into the kitchen, watching daddy cook. Dad was cooking! At that time, we were used to potato salad meaning my grandma's mayonnaise potato salad. This was hot potato salad? With bacon? And vinegar? What the heck?
My first bite and I was hooked. The salty bacon. Tangy vinegar. Sweet sugar. Soft potatoes. Crispy celery. Smooth egg bits. Slightly browned onions. It was so good. This is one of my favorite dishes.
SP likes it, too. We made it this past weekend. We ate it along with huge helping of blanched and sauteed green beans with lemon zest & juice. German Potato Salad is easy to make and it's one of those dishes that can be easily customized to particular tastes. My dad likes a lot of dressing - potatoes dripping in dressing. And egg - lots of egg. I like lots of bacon. Mom likes lots of finely chopped celery. I'm not sure of the source of the recipe. I've only ever seen it scribbled in dad's handwriting on a note card stained with vinegar splashes. But here's how my dad does it:

Basic German Potato Salad Recipe

5 lb bag red potatoes
Onion, chopped, sauteed
1 package of bacon, cut into cubes, cooked and 3-4 tbsp grease reserved
6 hard boiled eggs, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, finely diced, not cooked

¼ cup apple cider vinegar
4 tsp sugar
½ cup water
3-4 tbsp bacon grease from cooked bacon

Boil potatoes, cool, peel, chop. Saute onions. Cook chopped bacon. Reserve 3-4 tbsp bacon grease for sauce. Drain bacon well.

Put potatoes, eggs, celery, cooked bacon, onion, and parsley in casserole dish. Make dressing by whisking together bacon grease, water, apple cider vinegar, and sugar. Mix dressing into potato mixture. The potatoes absorb a lot of the dressing so you might need more (another ½ batch or whole batch, depending on how much dressing you want on the salad). Bake 350 until warm.

*If making extra dressing, do not add extra bacon grease, only use the 3-4 tbsp.
*We halve the recipe for the 2 of us, using about  2.5~3 lbs potatoes which gives us 3 dinners.
*We make a full batch of dressing for 2.5~3 potatoes and reserve a few tablespoons for reheating.
*We use a 9 x 13 casserole then divide it into smaller casseroles for reheating.
*Ours took about 20-25 minutes to warm in the oven.
*Reheat uncovered, adding extra dressing to keep it from drying out.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sonoma Grille

This past Saturday was one of our show & dinner date days. We saw Pippin and then we went to dinner at a new-to-us place: Sonoma Grille. Sonoma Grille is on Penn Avenue just a couple blocks from the Benedum. It's part of the Big Y Group which also includes Seviche, NOLA on the Square, and Perle.

We went to dinner in spite of my stomach issues. I was feeling better, but not great. I really didn't want to go home and eat grilled cheese plus I felt guilty cancelling on SP because he'd been dealing with me all week and I'm sure it wasn't fun listening to me barf for a few hours or gasp in pain every hour or so for 4 days as another excruciating cramp roiled through my mid-section.

Sonoma Grille is much more spacious inside than I expected. The walls are a soft, earthy color that I think of as a peachy-terra cotta color on the walls. The tables are spaced nicely apart. When the restaurant was full and busy, it wasn't too loud. It was relaxing and comfortable. It's a wine bar, so there is an extensive wine list including several wine flight options. I didn't want any wine but SP ordered a glass of Stags Head Viognier which, when I sipped, made me wish I felt 100% better because it was really to my liking. Instead of wine, I ordered iced tea.
There are a lot of starter options (tapas, cheese, appetizers, salads, flatbreads) and it took us a while to negotiate which ones we wanted to share. After we ordered, we received a bread basket with Mediterra bread. I can't remember specifically which bread this was. It was a delicious, hearty bread and the honey butter was delicious, too.
We decided to share a couple of the Tapas. Above is the Shrimp Tenpura with steak sauce and an aioli. The shrimp were a nice size, perfectly cooked, and the breading was light and crispy, much like what I used to enjoy when I lived in Japan. Below is the Halloumi:
Halloumi with cornflake coating served with cherry gastrique and chimichurri sauces (sauces not pictured). I asked for all of the dipping sauces on the side. Fried cheese, of course it was tasty, and thanks to halloumi having a high melting point, it wasn't too melty-messy.
SP ordered the Brussels with black garlic sauce. He said they were delicious, nice and still slightly firm and lovely blackened parts.
He also ordered the Crab Bisque with crab claw beignet, creme fresh, and chives. I tried a tiny bit of beignet dipped in soup. It was very good, lots of crab flavor and a hint of red pepper. He said it was one of his favorite crab bisques.
For his entree, SP chose to create a Mixed Grill plate with one selection: herbed branzino. He chose the stir fried vegetables with it and for his dipping sauce he chose minted cucumber yogurt. It was a large portion of fish and there were a lot of vegetables underneath. He said it was delicious, but he couldn't finish all of it so he took some home for lunch the next day.
I chose Coq Au Vin. I was curious to try it made by a pro to see how it compares to the coq au vin we make at home. It came with whipped potatoes, mushrooms, bacon, and pearl onions. I picked out all the onions. The dish was very good. The chicken was cooked through but still juicy and it was easy to cut. Lovely herbs sprinkled on the outside. The chevre whipped potatoes were fantastic. The sauce was different from ours. Ours is more of a red sauce from using tomatoes while this was more brown. It's definitely something I'd order again. I wanted to keep eating because it was so good, but I was feeling quite full and I didn't want to push my luck since my stomach was kind of behaving.  It was still tasty the next day re-heated for lunch.

Neither of us ordered dessert because we were too full.

We enjoyed our food and would go back. Service was good but a little different. For instance, our server spent a lot of time going over the menu when he greeted us and telling us how much we were going to like everything. It was a little much. It wasn't just our server, we heard the same spiels from the other servers around us at other tables. The restaurant filled up while we were there so the servers became much busier as we were there and our service became a bit slow after our entrees arrived. We sat for quite a while before our plates were cleared/boxed. It would not have bothered us as much if, after eating my entree and sitting a bit, my stomach hadn't started it's post-sick-not-yet-better gurgles and such. We were there 2 hours total. However, in spite of being busy and trying to make sure everyone going to a show later that night got out in time, our sever never seemed harried or grouchy or annoyed. I was seriously impressed with his calm, pleasant demeanor throughout the evening. Everyone from the hostess to server to other employees (table clearer, bread delivery person, etc.) was cheerful and pleasant.

Another solid choice in the Cultural District. We would go back. It's actually getting quite difficult to choose a place to dine after shows because we've had so many delicious meals lately in the theater area, which I suppose is a good problem to have.

  Sonoma Grille on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. As I type this post, I'm listening to The Afghan Whigs.. I think Algiers is my current favorite song. I can listen over & over to it. Good thing I'm home alone because SP hates when I repeat my music selections.
2. SP bought paczki at Party Cake last week. I love paczki, and so does he. He got lemon, raspberry, and chocolate cream.
3. Last week we made Graupensuppe again. It's the second time we made it and while it wasn't quite as tasty as the first time, it was still pretty darn tasty. Definitely a filling, comforting winter soup.

4. Last week I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Really good book. Made me cry, though, and then I had to tell SP all about it because I couldn't stop thinking about it. I'd like to see the movie, but not in the theater. I know I'll cry!

5. Last weekend we went to see American Sniper. Excellent movie, even with the "fake baby." Yes, I got teary at the end and I needed a tissue. So did SP. So sensitive!

6. I'm battling another round of digestive distress. That's why there was not much blog posting this week even though I actually have lots to write about.

7. This round all started with dinner last Saturday. We had planned to go out for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week but then MIL started emailing that we had to do the current birthday dinner before the end of January. Since the only Saturday in January that we could change plans was last Saturday, we changed our plans and said we were available.

Sadly, the restaurant of choice was Bahama Breeze. I acknowledge that chain restaurants have their place and are good choices for many people but for us, well, I guess we're spoiled and for the most part, we do not enjoy our meals at chain restaurants. BB in particular isn't great from my point of view because it's got this island/Caribbean theme and I despise the predominant flavors on the menu: beans, coconut, pineapple, garlic, cilantro, spicy, corn, plantains, curry. I don't even like the non-chain Kaya from Big Burrito because of the flavors.

Add to that the fact that I do not like fish and that I never order burgers when we are out because every single time I eat a burger out, it upsets my stomach, except for junior bacon cheeseburgers from Wendy's (go figure). I don't like ordering scallops, shrimp, or lobster at chain restaurants because they are never cooked properly - they're always over cooked and tough/rubbery. BB even had a lobster mac n cheese special this time, which always sounds appealing in theory but every place I've ever tried it the lobster was tough.  Plus at BB they had some chimichurri sauce with it, which didn't appeal to me. Chimichurri on mac and cheese? Gross.

There also was the 4 pm dinner time. So effing early, all because one person insists that she has to eat that early because of her diabetes. Nevermind that 2 other people have diabetes. Their diabetes doesn't matter. (Type 1 diabetes runs in SP's family, 4 people have it). No one stands up to her on this except for us, but we've given up. I'm never hungry at these dinners and when I eat little to nothing, it is of course remarked upon. Every time. I'm so sick of it. We usually eat at 7:30 pm so changing to 4 pm is difficult.

Plus, it was a Saturday, a day of chores and errands, and we had a lot to do. We did not get everything done before having to arrive at dinner at 4 pm. So we were not happy having to cut short the errands to eat dinner at old folk dinner time at a chain restaurant.

Anyway, the only thing that ever remotely appeals to me at BB is the Grilled Chicken Cobb Salad. Sadly over the past 4-5 years, it's gotten more expensive and the portion smaller. The chicken was so small, it was like 1/3 the size of the chicken breasts we buy. It was cooked but tasted a little off. The avocado was brown when it arrived. I guess they didn't bother with lemon or lime juice. The bacon portion was almost non-existent. The greens I ate tasted kind of waxy or something. It was just gross.

We stopped home after dinner and then went to see the movie. Part way through the movie, my stomach started bothering me. I kept feeling like I was going to be sick and I kept praying I could make it through the movie without needing to bolt for the bathroom. My stomach continued to bother me all that night and all Sunday.  I barely ate any of the delicious dinner we made. It bothered me on Monday as well and I commented to SP that I had been feeling a "digestive distress" coming on ever since Saturday. Sure enough, I felt super sick after dinner that night. By bedtime I had the excruciating cramping. I had to move from the bed to my recliner. And then at 4 am I moved to the bathroom for 3 hours and proceeded to barf for the second time in a year after 20 years of not barfing. Just like the episode I had last July. Pepto was promptly barfed up. I was sweating, flushed, goosebumpy, shaking.

SP worked from home on Tuesday to take care of me. I was still sick and weak. I managed to eat 12 crackers, a glass of ginger ale, and a slice of toast. I still have the cramping today, and based on experience, I will until next Tuesday. It always lasts about a week.

We are never eating at Bahama Breeze again. It helps that SP said his meal was disgusting, too. His salmon tostada salad had a greasy pool of melted cheese that made the "crispy baked tortilla" a soggy mess. He wasn't happy.

8. I am hopeful we will be able to keep our dinner reservation for this weekend, but if I'm still having the cramp/spasm excruciating pain, we'll have to cancel and stay home, which really ticks me off.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I'm a little behind on my blog posts. I really need to start writing down my thoughts on meals when I make/eat them if I'm going to take my time posting them. Like this meal we made 2 weekends ago: Pastitsio. I can't remember much other than it was really, really, really good. It's one of the recipes I bookmarked in Ina Garten's cookbook Make It Ahead. Basically, Greek lasagna, or Greek macaroni - it's a hearty, comforting, delicious cold weather meal.
It's also a bit time consuming to make. And uses a lot of pots and pans. The sauce is first: ground beef and ground lamb with tomatoes, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, cayenne, red wine, and onion. It simmers for about 45 minutes and the house smells wonderful. 
 While the sauce simmered, we cooked the pasta: mini shells.
Meat sauce and shells mixed together in a bowl and dumped into a 13 x 9 pan. Next we made the bechamel sauce which includes eggs and yogurt in addition to the whole milk, heavy cream, parmesan, butter, flour, and nutmeg. The bechamel is poured over the pasta mixture and then even more parmesan is sprinkled on top.
While the casserole baked for an hour, we cleaned up.
 Bubbly, cheesy goodness. Brown edges we fought over.
This dish is rich and delicious and definitely worth the time and effort. I enjoyed the mixture of beef and lamb since I find ground beef a little boring and ground lamb much more flavorful. We really liked the hint of cinnamon warmth and kick of cayenne. The bechamel sauce is absolutely delicious - - of course, because it's so darn unhealthy with all that cream and butter and cheese! The yogurt adds a nice tang to it.
I liked this better than regular lasagna even if it seemed much more time consuming and messy to make. But gosh this pastitsio is delicious and filling and comforting - perfect for this time of year.

Recipe here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. This past week I read Gray Mountain, the latest by John Grisham. I don't enjoy Grisham as much as I did in college when The Firm and A Time to Kill were the books we passed around the dorm and everyone just had to read them, but this was pretty good, even if it was a bit too much information on coal mining and strip mining for me.

2. I read one of those old National Geographic magazines! Only 2 more to go!

3. Saturday is usually our night out, but last Saturday it was so darn cold and SP had something he wanted to do from 3-5, so we ended up staying home and making homemade hoagies for dinner. After we ate, we watched The Equalizer. Not much of a plot but it's always a pleasure to watch Denzel.

4. Worst Cooks in America is back. We love this show. It's hilarious watching these guys wield knives (but also, cringe worthy and worrisome). And that teddy bear meatloaf?! I crack up every time I think of that misshapen lump of ground meat and Anne's reaction!

5. That's it for this Thursday. I have lots on my mind, but I'm not ready to share any of it on the blog just yet.