Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. Last weekend was our 7 year old nephew's birthday party. He is currently into Sonic the Hedgehog, so that was the theme. Even the cake was Sonic. That meant lots of royal blue/navy blue icing. That meant that when I left the party, I had blue teeth, blue lips, and a blue tongue. After the party, I spent a lot of time in the car on the way to dinner swishing water around in my mouth and wiping at my teeth, lips, and tongue!
2. After the party and dinner, we went to Margaret's for tea and then Gaby et Jules to get dessert. This time, we decided to try some more macarons. We shared them Saturday evening.  From left to right: Earl Grey, marshmallow chick, coffee, Le Pittsburgh, lemon, raspberry.
My favorites were the marshmallow chick and coffee. SP liked lemon & raspberry best. But I still like the palmiers and eclairs best.

3. This week we watched Birdman. What a terrific movie! No wonder it won Best Picture. I haven't yet seen all the movies that were nominated for Best Picture, I've seen 5 of the 8, but of the ones I have seen, this is the one I think is "best."

4. We started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. So far we really like it. Only 4 more episodes to go.

5. I started working on my cross-stitch again. Just a few hours a week. My eyes are going crazy. It's really tough to do the detail work on the black areas because the area is all black and all tiny cross-stitches, so I keep counting wrong and making mistakes and getting frustrated. Plus, the detail work uses metallic thread, which I do not like using because of its texture.

6. We're having success fixing electronic gadget issues. SP bought a new phone and we got to keep our price plan. My digital photo frame was replaced by the manufacturer. SP's remote control is being replaced by the manufacturer. My tablet seems to be back to normal.

7. If only we could get the yard guys here to look at the yard and then actually offer a quote and then actually show up to do the work. You wouldn't think this would be so difficult, but it is. Our woodsy hillside desperately needs a huge clean up and it is beyond our ability. We contact people, phone and email, leave messages, no one responds, or they say they'll be out to quote and it takes 2 weeks to show up, then it takes 2-3 weeks to get a quote that doesn't have all the stuff we wanted quoted... ARGH!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Coq au Riesling

One of our favorite dishes to make at home is Coq au Vin. Lots of red wine, mushrooms, carrots, and chicken that turns purple from the wine. The March/April issue of Cook's Illustrated has a recipe for Coq au Riesling. We both immediately wanted to try this version.
The published recipe uses a whole chicken cut up into 8 pieces, but we bought the usual thighs and legs in a package that we use for Coq au Vin. Instead of onion, this recipe uses shallots, which adds a nice purple color next to the green celery and orange carrots. Very spring-like.
I am usually not a fan of Riesling wines. I find them too sweet. This recipe calls for a dry Riesling, not a sweet one, or a Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis (but not an oaky Chardonnay). SP asked one of the liquor store employees for help and came home with this Pacific Rim Columbia Valley Dry Riesling. It was a great choice. Not only did it taste delicious in the dish, but we also enjoyed drinking the remaining wine while we cooked.
One of the things CI noticed when tasters tried this dish was that they removed the skin before eating the chicken. We do this, too, when we make Coq au Vin because during the simmer in liquid, the skin becomes soggy. SP usually takes the chicken out and while the sauce reduces, he pulls off the skin and picks all the meat off the bones then returns the meat to the sauce. CI's solution is to pull off the skin at the beginning and saute it until it is brown to get the good brown bits and then later on, discard the skin.

But first, bacon.
Then the chicken skin.
Then the vegetables are added to the bacon and chicken skin.
The chicken in its wine and water bath.
You could eat this with masked potatoes or noodles, but we decided to eat it with sourdough bread from Mediterra.
The mushrooms are sauteed at the end and then added to the chicken and sauce. This is delicious! It's a bit of a lighter version of the Coq au Vin we make.
The sauce is so good. Wine, chicken, herb, sour cream flavors. Definitely a sauce that cries out to be mopped up with bread. It's rich and velvety, but not as heavy as a red wine sauce. I think of the red wine based Coq au Vin as a fall/winter dish while this seems like a good spring/summer dish.

Our version of Coq au Riesling:
Ingredients

  • 4-5 lbs chicken parts (thighs and legs)
  • 2 slices bacon
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 carrots
  • 3 celery ribs
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 2.5 c dry Riesling
  • 1 c water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • parsley (fresh or dried)
  • thyme (fresh or dried)
  • 1 Costco package of whole mushrooms, sliced (around 1 lb)
  • 1/4 c sour cream thinned with a bit of heavy or whipping cream (our version of 1/4 c creme fraiche)

Directions

  • Remove the skin from the chicken.
  • Season chicken with salt and pepper.
  • Cook bacon in Dutch oven over medium-low heat until it starts to render.
  • Add chicken skin.
  • When skin is browned, remove a small amount of fat to later use in sauteing the mushrooms. 
  • Add the chopped vegetables.
  • Cook until vegetables start to soften.
  • Add flour and cook, stirring constantly so you don't burn the flour.
  • Slowly add wine, stirring and scraping up browned bits from side/bottom of the pot.
  • Turn up heat and simmer until the liquid starts to thicken.
  • Add water, bay leaves, and fresh herbs (if using fresh) and bring to simmer.
  • Add chicken.
  • Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until chicken is done. Stir partway through cooking. It should take around 30 minutes.
  • Remove chicken.
  • Strain liquid into a bowl. We used a wire mesh colander over a large glass measuring bowl with a pour spout (like this). Press on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard solids.
  • Let liquid settle a bit then skim any fat from the surface of liquid.
  • Saute mushrooms in reserved fat in pot used to cook chicken.
  • When mushrooms are lightly browned, return strained liquid to pot, bring it to a boil, and simmer until sauce thickens. Stir in dried herbs (if using) and sour cream (or creme fraiche).
  • Add chicken and any juices to pot, cover, and cook an additional 5-8 minutes.

Serves 4-6 (we got 3 dinners, so 6 servings)

*We used fresh thyme and dried parsley.
*We omitted the 4 lightly crushed & peeled garlic cloves.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Brunch with the Birds (The National Aviary)

Gandalf the Eurasian Owl (AKA the Harry Potter owl). Gandalf has a 4 ft wingspan.
SP & I were fortunate to be invited to a special tasting preview of the new brunch season at The National Aviary. I had never been to The Aviary plus I love brunch foods, so I was pretty excited even though I am not a huge fan of birds. The tasting was this past Saturday and in addition to yummy brunch treats, we were able to enjoy up close visits with a few of The Aviary's residents - my favorite might have been the owl. It was so tempting to reach out and stroke his beautiful fluffy feathers, but one look at his talons and I knew to just smile and keep my distance! Look at that thick glove his handler is wearing!
The tasting preview was held in the atrium but when the brunch season officially starts on Easter Sunday, it will be held outside in the Rose Garden under a tent. SP & I started off with Mimosas (there also were Bloody Marys as well as coffee and tea).
Our tables were covered in white tablecloths with floral centerpieces, but when Happy came for a visit, he had a special plastic covered table:
Happy the Penguin
Penguins are adorable and cute and you just want to scoop them up and hug them (but of course you don't). Happy is penguin #6 born at The Aviary and is 3 months old.

The cute owl and penguin nearly stole the spotlight from the food. There was a buffet of breakfast/brunch foods:
Cinnamon French Toast and Potato Pancake with smoked salmon and capers.
Roasted Vegetable Frittata con Queso with salsa verde and Chicken Tinga Enchiladas.
Thick slices of Bourbon Glazed Ham with mango chutney, Southern Sage Link Sausage, and Polish Kielbasa.
 Fresh Fruit
 Assorted Bagels, Croissant, Challah, Pastries
 My plate of food - quite a large breakfast for me at 9:30 am! 
SP's plate of food. You can see how different our tastes are! He had the buckwheat pancakes, sausage, and potato pancakes with salmon. I wish he'd put a sausage link on my plate, though, because it was delicious and I ate half of his off his plate.

I was stuffed after brunch. The Aviary's brunch is prepared onsite by Chef Josef Karst of Atria's catering. He came out and talked with us. He's a great guy, originally from Germany, and SP & I later wondered if he is the reason Atria's offers an Oktoberfest menu every September/October. He made extra potato pancakes and I ate a few plain (without the salmon/capers) - really tasty! If only I had a larger stomach, I could have eaten quite a few more!
Happy, in search of brunch food
Once brunch starts, outside in the heated (if necessary) tent, there will be an egg station with eggs prepared on demand. Brunch starts on Easter Sunday and the next 2 are on Mother's Day and Father's Day with 2 seatings each time (10:30 am and then 12:30 pm). There will be others, but the dates have not yet been announced. Reservations are required, and the cost includes visits from some of their birds. 

I cannot say enough how amazing it was to be able to be so close to the birds - I think I might be starting to like birds after this experience. I also cannot say enough how friendly all the employees are and how much knowledge they have and how much they share, not just the people who brought the visiting birds to brunch but also as we wandered through The Aviary after brunch. The Rainforest would have been kind of boring if not for the employee who told us all about each bird, their name, their quirks and personalities (some like to chase others, some act up if they feel ignored, some hide) and a wonderful guy told us all about the Bald Eagle and the Steller's Sea Eagle from Siberia. It's clear how much the employees enjoy working with the birds and how much they care about them.
Red the Scarlet Macaw was the first visitor at brunch. Beautiful! 
This would be a great way to spend some time with family, for adults and kids, enjoy tasty food, experience up close visits with some birds, and then walk through the exhibits and maybe even feed a pelican or lorikeet.

Many thanks to The Aviary for the invitation.


Note: SP & I were given complimentary admission and brunch for the tasting preview, but The Aviary did not ask me to write an endorsement of their brunch/their establishment. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. March Madness starts today. As usual, SP & I filled out brackets as did my parents and we'll see who wins this year. It's almost always my mom. My dad is almost always the loser. We haven't decided on a prize yet, but one suggestion is that the loser buys the others a Rita's one night.

I already survived a potential disaster when #3 Notre Dame squeaked by #14 Northwestern. However, disaster has already struck because #3 Iowa State just lost to #14 UAB. Crap.

2. I watched the movie Locke today. It's just Tom Hardy, driving a car, but I could look at and listen to Tom Hardy all day long. I'm surprised how much I enjoyed the movie even though it's pretty much just 1.5 hours of him driving in a car while talking on the phone.

3. No books this past week, but I just requested a bunch from the library so I'm sure that soon I'll be overwhelmed with reading material.
4. Last weekend we ended up at Central Diner for dinner. I tried some new dishes and wasn't as happy as in the past with other meals there. To start, I ordered cheesesticks. I don't know why, but I just really needed cheesesticks,
For my meal, I got the Chicken Parmesan Sandwich. I've been wanting to try it for a while. It was huge! Lots of cheese. My mistake was that I didn't listen to the part of my brain that was trying to warn me to stick with my policy of rarely, if ever, ordering meals with red sauce because all red sauces are different and some are just not to my liking. Sadly, the red sauce for the cheesesticks and sandwich was one with chunks of tomato and a thinner consistency. I prefer smooth and thick red sauce (tomato puree and tomato paste). So it was disappointing, but only because of my personal red sauce preferences.
SP liked my red sauce a lot because that's how he likes his red sauce: with tomato chunks. For his meal, he ordered the special Twin Filet Combo: filet of sole stuffed with crab and a filet of sole stuffed with spinach and feta. He said it was really good.
We got dessert to go. Of course he got the rice pudding. I got the sprinkle cake, or fun-fetti cake, whatever you want to call it. It was enormous! And tasty. Lots of sprinkles.

5. Tomorrow is spring! I'm celebrating by going out in the rain to get my gray hair colored.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Soft & Chewy Sugar Cookies

I have been searching for a delicious sugar cookie for years. Soft in the middle with browned edges for crunch. Flavorful. A drop cookie/not roll out the dough recipe. Not too greasy. I tried a lot of recipes, but they were all unsatisfactory. I gave up. Every time I got a wee bit excited about a sugar cookie recipe, I would remember all the disappointments and reject the recipe. Until now.
We've had Baking Illustrated for years. I've known for years that inside is a sugar cookie recipe. The America's Test Kitchen recipes are usually winners, but I kept remembering all the sugar cookie fails. Last summer when we made the Snickerdoodles from Baking Illustrated, I re-read the sugar cookie recipe and filed it away in the back of my mind. Way back because I didn't give them a second thought until this past weekend.
We decided to make the sugar cookies. I'm so glad we did - they are delicious. Probably one of my top ten favorite cookies. One curious thing happened, though: we moved our oven racks to the upper & lower middle areas and rotated the cookie sheets halfway through baking as instructed, but one tray spread out thinner than the other - ?
We think it might be because one cookie sheet was a thick, dark metal, non-stick jelly roll cookie sheet and the other was a thinner, non-stick, regular cookie sheet with lower edges.
They taste the same. Crisp, browned edges, Soft, chewy interiors. Crackled & sugary tops. Buttery goodness.
They aren't too soft, though. It still took SP a bit of effort to break one in half for a photo and a taste test.
Two dozen cookies, just about the right amount for the two of us for a week. Since I'll want a cookie or two every night, I'll be able to control my cookie monster urges because I'll want them to last. But they're so good I could easily inhale 3-4 at a time.
Definitely a cookie we'll bake again.

Recipe here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Raspberry-Ricotta Cake

Since it's just the two of us, I am always keeping an eye out for dessert recipes that do not make a huge dessert. Cookie recipes that make only 2 dozen. Cake recipes that make only one layer. I always want a little dessert every evening, but I am trying to watch what I eat, plus SP, while he enjoys dessert treats, has to be careful.
So when I saw this recipe in the March 2015 issue of Bon Appetit, I got excited. Not only was it for one cake layer, but there was no frosting, and it had fruit, which SP always likes.
Raspberry-Ricotta Cake. This cake is so easy to make. It requires a bit of planning - we do not usually have ricotta and frozen raspberries as staples in the kitchen so we had to add those to the grocery list. It's like making muffins: Measure the dry ingredients into a bowl. Measure the wet ingredients into another bowl and mix until smooth. Fold the wet into the dry. Fold in raspberries. Pour in pan. Bake. Eat.
We have 8 inch round cake pans, so that's what I used instead of a 9 inch pan. That's probably why the cake almost, but not quite, puffed up to overflow as it baked. Fortunately the edges were cooked enough to not overflow when it rose above the rim of the pan. Next time I might put it on a cookie sheet just in case. I baked it for about 10-15 minutes longer than the recipe says.
It smelled so good. I decided that in the best interest of the blog, I should take photos in the afternoon sunlight, so I just had to cut into the cake in the afternoon and sample a slice. SP decided he should supervise the cutting, photographing, and of course, sampling. It's delicious! So moist. I can taste the ricotta, but it's not a strong flavor. It made me think of a raspberry cheese danish in cake form. The edge is brown enough to be a slightly crisp treat (we both like brown edges).

This is definitely a make again cake for us.

Recipe here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. It's beginning to look & feel like spring! I can see the dead grass! The stink bugs are coming out!
2. Last weekend we met SP's family at BRGR in Mt. Lebanon for his birthday dinner. As usual, I enjoyed a grilled chicken sandwich with cheddar, mushrooms, bacon, and caramelized onions. SP had a shrimp-mahi mahi burger in a lettuce wrap. We shared a side order of potato salad.
The potato salad was pretty tasty. Bacon buts, creamy dressing, lots of dill. Yum!

My sandwich was not quite as good as those I've had in the past at BRGR and our server was slightly forgetful but I still like the place.

3. I have become quite picky about my lunch meat. That means I will only eat the pricey stuff. At least it seems that way based on what the lunch meat costs. I like Boars Head but the stores closest to us do not sell it. I also like the house roasted lunch meats at the Market District deli, but my chief complaint is that their house roasted turkey is sold dried out or it dries out in 24 hours. The result? This:
Shredded, not sliced, turkey. So annoying. There was no way I could leave it in the bag so I put it in a plastic container. It is impossible to transfer any from the container to the sandwich without dropping shredded bits all over. Then, when I eat the sandwich, turkey shreds fall out and all over my desk, shirt, etc.
The digital frame start up screen
4. The trend of electronics dying continues: this week, the digital frame that SP bought me for Christmas to replace the one that malfunctioned in late November has now malfunctioned. Something is wrong with the screen. The color is horribly off. It's too late to return it where we bought it, but we contacted the manufacturer and we'll see what happens. Emails and photos and instructions and requests have been exchanged.
Sad, sad colors
5. I haven't read any books lately, just two cookbooks. SP's mother gave him a Mario Batali's America: Farm to Table cookbook for his birthday and I requested Dessert For Two from the library.

6. Justified and The Americans are our current favorite TV shows. Broadchurch Season 2 is good, too, but I'm reserving judgment for now.

7. SP planted some seeds so our garden is started. Like last year, the dining room is now a greenhouse. We'll see how it goes this year. Some of our plastic planters that we leave outside cracked from the ice this winter and the raised garden bed looks a little dilapidated so I guess we'll need to make some new purchases and do some repair work.