Friday, March 30, 2012

Nobody Takes Me There!!

Long time readers know we live in Robinson, land of chain stores and chain restaurants. Overall, we love living where we live and would not choose to move elsewhere, not even to Squirrel Hill or Shadyside or East Liberty, the more local/independent restaurant & shop filled places. You'll never get everything you want in a home/home location, but we are darn close. We love being so close to the airport and to the city, we are close to many major roads, there are multiple ways to get places once you learn the 'back roads' so you avoid traffic, we love having the Market District right down the hill, the library is right down the hill, the Costco is nearby, all those 'chain stores' are close by and make dashing out for grill gas or a lawnmower part or a new paint brush in the middle of a painting job quick and easy and relatively painless.

Our only complaint is the lack of independent restaurants. Sure, there's Bocktown and some Asian places like Ya Fei and Fuji Sushi, but mostly, it's 'the chains.' I bring this up for a reason. One is the recent news story about Marilyn Hagerty, who enthusiastcially reviewed an Olive Garden restaurant for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. I know why dining critics don't review the chain restaurants. But perhaps we should be a bit more grateful for the plethora of chain restaurant dining options in our township.

And we do sometimes go to them. Consequently, I blog about them. I like food, I like cooking & eating out, I am not a trained chef nor trained critic, and I can't always escape my 'land of chains' town to dine at a local/independent place, so sometimes I will post food photos from an Olive Garden or Panera or Wendy's because, well, it's food! We like food! We aren't (always) snobby about what we eat! Sometimes, that Junior Bacon Cheeseburger is the most delicious thing ever.

So here I am, in this land of chains, and you'd think that when I start listing all the chains I'd remember the one up on the hill by Lowe's & McDonald's. But I never do. It's never on my radar. Until we drive past the billboard advertising their $5.99 special.

When we drive from the city to our home on the parkway, we pass a billboard for Cracker Barrel. Every time I see it, I think, "Oh yes! There is a Cracker Barrel here! Why don't I ever remember that?!" And because SP & I like to tease each other and give each other a hard time, and because usually when I see this billboard it's after having enjoyed a delicious dinner at an independent restaurant in the city, and also because I think it's the only chain out here we haven't been to at least once, I always exclaim in a loud voice:

"Cracker Barrel!!! Nobody takes me to Cracker Barrel!"

SP rolls his eyes and then offers to take me. And I say no, that's OK. It's a ritual now. I think if I forgot to exclaim about no one taking me to Cracker Barrel, he'd be sad. Sometimes I'll be silent just long enough for him to start glancing my way and then he says,"Go ahead, you can say it!"

Cracker Barrel. My one & only Cracker Barrel experience was way back in the late 90's on my way to OH to visit my brother for Christmas. I had pancakes, I think.

So it was Saturday evening, 7 pm, we were exiting Walmart, so you can imagine our general mood, and we'd been zipping about since 10:45 am. We'd eaten yogurt, scrambled eggs, birthday cake, tacos, and that was about it. It was time for the dinner conversation. Neither of us was especially hungry, but we knew we should probably eat because if we didn't, we'd be hungry once we got home and neither of us would have the energy to even microwave... well, truthfully, there wasn't anything at home to microwave, nothing at all to eat, not even eggs, so we had to do something.

I looked over towards Lowe's for some reason, and it hit me. I started laughing. SP thought I'd lost the last of my sanity in Walmart.

"You know where you could take me?"
"Um, no, where do you want to go?"
"You know where. You never take me there."
And he got it. At the same time we said,"Nobody take me to Cracker Barrel!"

So that's what we did. And now I can't truthfully say,"Nobody takes me to Cracker Barrel."
Country cooking. Country decor. Breakfast all day.
Cracker Barrel makes me think of Country Cupboard in Lewisburg, PA, where I went to college. Country theme, country decor, country cooking - biscuits, gravy, sausage - and a country store. It's where the parents would take their kids for breakfast/lunch when they were in town for Parents' Weekend. The 'all you can eat breakfast buffet' was a big hit for us in college. I experienced Country Cupboard years before I ever went to Cracker Barrel so I always felt that CB stole their idea from CC (I'm not saying they did, it's just a coincidence that they are similar! CB was founded in TN in 1969 and CC was founded in Lewisburg in 1973, likely well before CB expanded north into PA).
Cute, old style lamps like this

A peg game on the table, which reminded me of all the times we visited my great Aunt Norma and my brother and I would take turns playing this game

SP's salad, with crackers and Italian dressing

SP's chicken noodle soup with enormous croutons

SP's lemon pepper grilled trout

Side of cole slaw

Side of corn muffins

My french toast with cherry fruit topping

My side of bacon
They must be used to really churning people in and out. SP had barely taken a bite of salad when his soup showed up. He was on his fifth or sixth bite of salad when all the other food arrived. It was kind of funny to see 7 plates of food on the table. There was no empty space on the table!!

All the food was OK, what you'd expect from a Cracker Barrel, lots of food for the price. We both ate only about half of our meals. Including tip, I think we spent $31.

When I eat, I tend to take my time, so I felt kind of rushed at Cracker Barrel. No one pushed us out the door or asked us to leave, but the rapid arrival of all our food in a span of about 3 minutes, well, it just felt rushed. But it filled our bellies, gave SP leftovers to eat the next day before going to the hockey game, and rejuvenated us enough to finish our last few errands.

But what I have been thinking as I sit here writing this, is that maybe we owe the chains a little more respect. As China Millman wrote last week, they serve a different purpose than the independent, local, more creative restaurants. The chains are predictable, the menus rarely change, perhaps just a few seasonal changes but the core menu remains the same, but you know what you're going to get. And that can be comforting and good.

We should be grateful that we live in an area where, at 7 pm on a Saturday evening, with no reservations, we were able to choose from 15-20 chain restaurants, and that's just the ones I can quickly rattle off. I am sure if I gave it some more thought, there would be 20+ places. I would say that all of them have decent food, it's a matter of what style/cuisine most appeals to you.

I'm not sure how soon we'll return to Cracker Barrel, but the food was decent, less expensive than our usual meals, and our servers and the other employees were very cheerful and friendly. A nice, spur of the moment, quick dinner.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What's The Fuss?

You may have heard of a (relatively) new taco place in Pittsburgh called Smoke Barbecue Taqueria. It's near The Waterfront in Homestead, on Eighth Avenue and near Blue Dust & Tin Front Cafe.

Smoke had actually been driving me a bit crazy, and I hadn't even been there. For one, it seemed like everyone loved, loved, loved it. That always makes me step back and say, hmmmm.... There have been a few restaurants that everyone seems to love, love, love, but when we tried those places, we were less than impressed and could not understand why they got so much love.

Smoke seemed to be popping up everywhere, in lots of tweets, lots of blog posts, newspaper/magazine reviews and quite frankly, I got a little sick of seeing all the Smoke adoration. It started to annoy me, much like all the Salt of the Earth adoration. Every time I'd see 'tacos' or 'Smoke' I'd sigh heavily, roll my eyes, and get annoyed. I started to dig in my heels and swear that I'd never go there because it couldn't possibly be that amazing.

Also, it's tacos. I was like, tacos, really? Tacos inspire this much adoration? This much attention? This much hype? What do they put in those things?

And also, tacos. Not my favorite food. Yes, we make them at home, not with the packaged seasoning, and they're still only OK. I've been to lots of Mexican restaurants since SP likes Mexican but I remain unimpressed, even with Mad Mex, although I do like their margaritas. Why? Because Mexican food tastes  to me like a bunch of bland flavors with hot, spicy stuff mixed in to give it 'flavor.' There's no flavor other than heat. Followed by a gross after taste in my mouth that not even brushing & gargling will dispel. I need more than spice, heat, garlic, and onions to think a dish is tasty.

I know. Everyone is going to argue with me, call me a spice wimp, think I'm crazy, and say I am wrong and how can I possibly have a food blog?! But maybe this example is a better explanation of what I am trying to say:

I do not like spicy, hot foods that set my mouth on fire. But last year, we brought home a bottle of Peach Grilling Sauce from our trip to Dahlonega, GA. I tried it on some ribs. It was hot to me (and to a couple other non-spice loving friends of ours who tried it) and I gulped water to soothe my mouth BUT I couldn't stop setting my mouth on fire because the flavor of peach and sweet BBQ taste were so darn good! They shone through the spice/heat. It was so good that I am about to search for the sauce online to see if I can order it from the General Store where we bought it so that we can have peach ribs this summer.

Most spicy, hot foods, like Mexican and Indian, to me, taste bland underneath the heat, and all I end up with is a burning mouth and a gross aftertaste in my mouth. That's not fun.

But I try to be a good wife, and I knew SP wanted to try Smoke, but we are rarely in that area of town, so when I realized we would be in Greenfield for our nephew's 4th birthday party, I suggested to SP that after the party, we head over to Smoke and have an afternoon taco treat. My hope was that it wouldn't be too crowded.

It's been maybe a year since we last cruised around Eighth Avenue in Homestead and ate at Tin Front Cafe. Back then, street parking was plentiful. Not so much last Saturday afternoon. We ended up parking in a metered lot and SP decided he'd go check things out - make sure it was accessible, not too crowded inside for me, etc. He reported back that the few tables (I think he said there were three) were filled but they do take out, so he had grabbed a menu. We each chose a taco, only one taco each and no sides because we still had a bunch of errands to do so extra food wouldn't keep well in the car because of the heat plus we were not super hungry after birthday cake & snacks. It took 35 minutes, but finally, he returned to the car with the tacos.

I chose the BLTaco:
The bacon was tiny cubes. That was a good first sign since sometimes when I bite into bacon, I end up pulling the whole slice out and then the remaining food is bacon-less. The tomatoes were very red and juicy. I was a little concerned about the smoked pepper mayo - would it be too spicy? Leave that horrible after taste?

I am happy to report that my taco was quite delicious. I much prefer this kind of taco shell to a hard shell or too soft & floury soft shell. And yes, I know they make their tortillas fresh daily so of course I should have expected a delicious shell. I still do not like the taste of cilantro, so next time, I'd ask them to be sure to leave it off. There wasn't a lot of cilantro, but my last couple of bites had a strong taste of cilantro.

As I tweeted, if all tacos were this delicious, I would be more interested in eating them more often!

SP chose the Pork taco, with apricot habanero sauce and caramelized onions:
As expected he loved his taco. I tried a bite and really liked it, too. It had flavor in addition to the heat.

Best part - no disgusting spicy/heat after taste for me!

I now understand all the Smoke love. I'm not sure I understand it enough to drive from Robinson to Homestead and then wait a half hour or more for tacos all that often, but if we find ourselves in that area, I would definitely suggest stopping by for a taco treat. I also could see having SP stop by for take out after work. It'd be a bit out of the way for him, but we could order more then two tacos and some sides since he'd be bringing it home and we could safely refrigerate any leftovers.

It would be nice if they could add some more tables and maybe have the tacos ready a bit faster? I realize it's all made fresh to order but... it's a bit annoying to have to wait so long if you decide to just pop in and get something to go. If there were more tables, the wait wouldn't be so annoying because you could sit and have a beverage and chat and relax. Of course you can also call well in advance for your food and arrive 30-45 minutes later. But to just pop in on the spur of the moment is a time consuming thing.

*They are BYOB
**They also are cash only
***These are the best tacos I've ever eaten

SMOKE barbeque taqueria on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Snap Crackle Pop

I have been baking since I was a wee little girl in grandma's kitchen and I've made a lot of goodies. But there are still lots goodies I've never made. Like Rice Krispie Treats. I suppose Rice Krispie Treats are not a baked good since they don't bake, but they are a treat that I made for the first time ever this past weekend.
I remember really, really liking these as a child. But my mom never made them for me. Poor me! I remember other moms making these for parties, classroom treats, Girl Scout meetings... I think I asked once for her to buy me the ingredients but for some reason she wouldn't buy them. I think she mumbled something about melted marshmallows and gooey messes and sticky hands.
It always surprises me that I like these so much because I don't really like cereal. I remember one cold, winter morning before school when I was in first grade and I sat at this little table in the living room (no idea why I wasn't in the dining room) trying to eat a bowl of Sugar Smacks. It was torture. They were gross. The longer it took me, the soggier and more disgusting those Sugar Smacks got. Then the soggy smacks started making me gag, much like when I try to eat cold toast. If there's anything that rivals soggy cereal, it's cold toast. Bleah. Thank goodness I was saved by the school bus. I think my mom got the 'hint' since she never served me Sugar Smacks again.
Ooey gooey marshmallow goodness!
Cereal isn't a good food for me since I do not eat quickly. It just gets too soggy. Eventually, I gave up on adding milk and decided that dry cereal was the way to go. I'd sit at the breakfast table with a bowl of Lucky Charms or Cookie Crisp or Fruity Pebbles and a glass of milk, chew some cereal, sip some milk, and repeat. Cereal, milk, cereal, milk. Good grief that sounds so ridiculous - but that's what I did.
In my college dorm room, I often snacked on Fruit Loops right from the box. Freshman year when I was on the meal plan, if I made it to breakfast, I would sometimes eat a bowl of Trix or Apple Jacks, only by then, I had a new method: I would get a bowl of cereal and a bowl of milk. I'd transfer a small amount of cereal into the bowl of milk, eat it all, and then transfer a bit more cereal into the milk. That way, my cereal didn't get soggy.

After college, the only cereal I ate was Chex Mix. Chex cereal is really good when coated in butter & salt and mixed with pretzels & peanuts!
This past Saturday, as we were out & about, I would periodically get bored in traffic or while SP ran into a store and would check email/blog posts/tweets on my phone. That was when I saw Lindsay's tweet/blog post about Churro Chex Mix. Mmm churros. This sounded like a yummy treat to make, and since we were on our way to the store, I informed SP that we were adding cinnamon chips and Chex cereal to the grocery list. He agreed it sounded pretty tasty. But he questioned the existence of cinnamon chips. I assured him they really did exist - I have used them. OK, it was a very long time ago, but I recall making cinnamon chip muffins.

Well of course stupid Walmart didn't have cinnamon chips. We don't like going to Walmart anyway, so we were already annoyed, and then, no cinnamon chips. But then, it hit me: Rice Krispie Treats. So instead of cinnamon chips and Chex, we bought Rice Krispies and marshmallows.
I don't know what it is about this super simple (but sticky) treat, but I cannot stop eating them. Breakfast treat. Afternoon snack. Dessert. It's not just that I am eating them breakfast/lunch/dinner - I'm eating 2 or 3 at a time. I can't stop myself. SP is having some willpower issues, too. We have nearly finished the entire batch. It's only Tuesday morning.

Luckily, there was a coupon for marshmallows in Sunday's paper. And we still have some Rice Krispies. So SP is buying marshmallows tonight on his way home from work. I'm tempted to try the chocolate or cinnamon marshmallows that we saw, but I'm not sure if flavored store bought marshmallows taste that yummy. Homemade flavored marshmallows are really good, but I'm just a bit unsure of store bought flavored marshmallows.

I'll have the Rice Krispies, butter, saucepan, and greased pan ready for him when he walks in the door tonight!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fire Up the Grill

The weather here in Pittsburgh has been unbelievably wonderful. It was warm enough when we were making & eating lamb stew last week that we regretted choosing to make the stew. It was a bit too hearty for the weather. We wanted something lighter for this week since the warm weather continues. In fact, it's warm enough to fire up the grill!

We don't grill year round. We know people who, when it snows, the first place they shovel is the path to the grill. But that's not us. By mid-November we have the grill covered and stored in a place on the deck that hopefully shields it a bit from wind and snow and icicles. We found out the hard way that falling icicles can shred a grill cover! Usually we don't start grilling again until early/mid April.

Anyway, we started off the first grilling for the year with a cocktail. We chose to mix some Black Cherry Bourbon with Club Soda. SP really likes this bourbon, which was a birthday present. I thought it was good, especially after I added an orange wedge. The bourbon whiskey has a hint of cherry, but it's not overpowering, and it doesn't taste like cough syrup!
Yes, that is a Star Wars Light Saber chopstick in my cocktail. Makes an excellent stirrer.
 You need a little snack while you get ready to grill and watch March Madness. Cheese.
Three kinds of Irish Cheddar (Porter Stout, Wine, Whiskey) and some leftover Monterey Jack with Jalapeno
 Salad are light and healthy. Plus, we have lots of leftover veggies from last week's taco dinners.
Lettuce, red pepper, tomato, cucumber
 A homemade Dijon Vinaigrette:
 Some homemade Whole Wheat Honey Bread:
The bread used up the last of last year's CSA honey. It also used up the whole wheat flour from last year's CSA. We substituted butter for shortening. The bread machine did the rest.
Very tasty. And hearty. I find the breads we make in our bread machine to be heavy and filling. That's not a bad thing, it just means all I need to feel full is one slice.

The grill part: burgers. We bought ground meats and figured if it was rainy at dinner time, we'd make meatloaf. If not, we'd make burgers.

Long time readers know by now that when we make burgers or meatloaf or tacos, there are usually his and hers versions. This time, my burgers are a blend of ground beef, ground veal, and ground pork:
They are huge! The ground meats are seasoned with seasoned bread crumbs, Dijon, Worcestershire, egg. I topped mine with some BBQ sauce and a slice of pimento cheese.
These are cooked all the way through and stayed moist, so I was pretty excited because sometimes in an effort to make sure my burgers have no pink, they end up a little dry. These are the best burgers SP has ever made me.

SP's burgers are ground turkey and ground pork. His are smaller and they sort of fell apart on the grill because they were too wet. Next time, he said he'd omit the Worcestershire.
 His sad little burger, topped with provolone. No BBQ. I can't imagine they are tasty, but he says they are.
My burgers are so big that I'll definitely get 4 meals, maybe 5, from them. I wish SP ate beef, because I could use a little help eating all those big burgers!

After dinner, there was tea, hot and iced (which means we also made a lemon simple syrup on Sunday), and some madeleines that we made earlier that day:
Mmmm. Madeleines.

A successful first grilling of the year!

Monday, March 19, 2012

No NOLA

No NOLA. This post was going to be about NOLA, the restaurant in Market Square in Pittsburgh, but then I realized it could also refer to our trip to NOLA that isn't going to happen this year. We spent a lot of time in January/February researching New Orleans for a potential mini vacation this March. We just couldn't seem to pull it together. For many things in life, I am one of those 'I know it when I know it' people. Not always, but usually. After all my research and our discussions and more research and... well, I just wasn't feeling comfortable with booking the airfare (ridiculous cost for PIT-NOLA and no non-stops) and hotel (that wasn't really the hotel we wanted because the one we wanted was fully booked) and I was/still am concerned about accessibility and crowds and... I just didn't 'know it.' After all that research, we shelved our NOLA trip and planned a different vacation instead.

But, we had tickets to La Cage Aux Folles at the Benedum this past Saturday and we decided that would be a great time to walk over to Market Square after the show and dine at NOLA, a restaurant on our 'try' list. SP made reservations for 6 pm and we figured after the show, we'd take our time walking over, have a cocktail, and then enjoy dinner.

A little 'background' before I continue this post: I am not Irish. At all. Neither is SP. At all. We don't ever do anything to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Never been to the parade. Don't drink green beer. Don't wear green. Don't get all shamrock-y. I think I've been 'Irish For A Day' once in my life, and it was an awful day. We knew when we decided to see LCAF on March 17 that it was also going to be St. Patrick's Day and the parade.

We did not remember that the Men's NCAA Tournament was in town the same weekend.

We did not know Joe Biden was coming into town.

We did not know that Market Square sponsors 'Irish Fair in the Square' on St. Patrick's Day - a day of drinking right there in the middle of the square with police patrolling the entrances/exits so that no one smuggles any booze in or out (bless this state and its absurd liquor laws).

Oh yes - while we both had our fair share of alcohol over-consumption and ridiculous alcohol induced behavior in college, neither of us drinks much these days. There's also the fact that we are no longer in our 20's. Or, um, in our 30's. Much like we conveniently forget our teenage clothing fads, music tastes, and book/movie choices and now roll our eyes and wonder what the heck has gotten into kids these days, we also  conveniently forget our alcohol fueled experiences in our 20's and roll our eyes in annoyance when we see 20 & 30-somethings partying to excess these days. There's a reason we never choose to dine on the South Side on a Saturday evening.

So back to our Saturday. We left extra early because we feared traffic getting into the city and any road closures because of Biden. To our amazement, we were in the city and parked in 20 minutes. So we spent 40 glorious minutes in the sunshine at Eyeball Park, watching the celebrations. And mocking a bit. I mean, seriously girls in your 20s, super tight skirts that show your not totally flat tummy are kinda gross. Skirts that barely cover your derriere are kinda slutty. Skirts that are short and 'flirty,' and by that I mean so wispy that they fly up in the rear when a wee breeze blows, are also way too revealing. I'll stop there. Except for one more comment about the girl wearing a tiara. Really? A tiara? I'm pretty sure you didn't look like any of the 3 women in the Miss Irish photo in the newspaper, so... I don't get it.

OK, one more: the guy wearing a '*uck Me I'm Irish' pin. Seriously?! There were kids in that park and at that parade.

So we soaked up the sun and headed inside where I discovered that our seats sucked. Usually, we buy seats in the center orchestra. These were on the right. Not even center right. Right. All the way. As in the seat they sold me wasn't even a real wheelchair seat because the seat couldn't be removed to make room for the wheelchair. I was seated IN THE AISLE. As far right as you could be. Actually, more right than you could be because I was IN THE AISLE. Nearly against the wall. It sucked. I couldn't see the back of the stage, so I missed whatever scenery there was for the background, and I couldn't see the right of the stage. Usually, we call the day tickets go on sale, as we did for LCAF, and we have no problem getting good seats. But this time...

Of course a group of loud & obnoxious people soon sat down behind/next to us. I have no problems with a group of friends seeing a show and having a good time, but they arrived while the pre-show warmup was going on and talked loud enough that I couldn't hear the performer's voice over theirs and then, when she asked the crowd if anyone had a birthday that day, the idiot behind us raised his hand and babbled something about his Mercedes turning 11 that day. Um, really? You wanted everyone to know your car turned 11?

The show was good, even if I couldn't see much of it and felt as if I was going to slide out of my wheelchair any second because I was on a slope, not a level area. I was ready for a cocktail and some food. So we walked over to Market Square. You know, the family fun fair that I thought was supposed to end around 5 or 5:30pm. We walked past groups of weaving celebrators, some staggering people, some lurching people, and the closer we got to Market Square, the more hesitant and wary we became. I knew as we passed the police we had made a mistake. I hadn't been to Market Square in years, so I only know what is there from what I read. We had no idea where exactly NOLA was, and we couldn't see it through the crowds of people. There seemed be spilled beer and/or melted ice all over the place. Trash bins were overflowing and there was trash everywhere. I didn't see any families. I didn't see more than 2-4 people who were older than 40 (not counting us). Mostly, I felt like I had gone back in time 20 years to college and House Party Weekend when the fraternities hosted all day long parties for one weekend and everyone spent 3 days drunk.

I don't want to sound judge-y. As I said before, we both had our alcohol over indulgence and fun in college and into our 20's. I get it. I just don't like it anymore. I have 2 glasses of wine these days and I feel it the next day! I'm an old fart now.

It took us a long time of wandering through the crowd to locate NOLA, then we couldn't get near the entrance in the wheelchair, so SP went over to investigate, he reported that there was no hostess he could see and it was super crowded and super loud. We turned around and left. I couldn't get out of that place fast enough. If I was 24 again, sure, that'd be a blast with my friends, but now...

A few blocks away we stopped so he could call NOLA and cancel our reservation. I don't think they cared much that we cancelled only 30 minutes in advance.

We went back to the parking garage and decided to escape to Bryant Street. Of course on the way there we passed by many green clad idiots, some darting out into crosswalks, intersections, and roads whenever they felt like it, giving me many mini heart attacks as I feared someone lurching right into our car as it crept down the street.

I was so glad when we got to Park Bruges. No one was wearing green. No one was drunk. Or lurching. Or staggering. Or shouting. Or 'whoo'-ing.

I didn't have a cocktail because I was tired and didn't want to get sleepier plus they serve Earl Grey iced tea and it's delicious. Just what I needed on a warm not quite spring yet day.

Here's what we ate, and we again enjoyed it all:
SP ordered the Soup of the Day. I don't remember what it was, something with curry and lentils, I think. He loved it.

Crab Beignets. They were so tasty last time that we had to get them again.

Inside a Crab Beignet

SP chose Moules in Lobster-Pernod Sauce, Tarragon, and Basil

Lots of tarragon in his moules.

Once again, I chose the Chicken with tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, and risotto.
We got a Pear Tart to take home for dessert. We ate it later that night and it was very good. A gingersnap crust, a mascarpone like filling, and red wine poached pears on top. I forgot to take a photo.

Like last time, we enjoyed our food, our server was great, and we enjoyed ourselves.

As for NOLA, both the city and the restaurant here in Pittsburgh, they'll just have to wait a bit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irish Stew

I know I said I don't usually plan theme meals for holidays, like Irish food for St. Patrick's Day, but I was browsing meal ideas online and came across an Irish Stew recipe and it sounded really tasty. I suggested it to SP and he agreed. We ended up not using the recipe I found online. Instead we used a recipe in The Joy of Cooking.
It's a lot of cubed lamb, sliced potatoes and halved potatoes, carrots, thyme, barley, and onions in chicken stock and Worcestershire.

The good:
  • easy to make, little active prep time
  • lots of leftovers
  • tasty lamb
  • tasty barley bits
The not-so-good:
  • our sliced potatoes didn't seem to 'melt' and thicken the broth as they should have
  • we quartered the potatoes placed on top instead of halving them but even so they were not cooked through after 2 hours
  • the carrots were not cooked through after an hour
  • needed more barley
  • we decided to add peas and instead of adding some peas SP added an entire bag of frozen peas which means there were way too many peas!
  • not quite as flavorful as we expected
There really is barley in the stew, hidden under everything else
What would we do different next time?
  • more barley
  • different potatoes (The recipe calls for boiling potatoes. It's possible the potatoes we had in the pantry that we wanted to use up were not the right kind of potatoes. They didn't melt or thicken the sauce and even after 2 hours simmering in the oven they were not cooked through.)
  • more Worcestershire
It was still a good meal, a filling meal. When I reheated the leftovers, I reheated them in a covered casserole dish at 350 degrees for an hour. The carrots & potatoes cooked more and came out much softer and tastier. I would make this again, adding more thyme and Worcestershire for extra flavor, but I also might choose to instead make a Lamb Shepherd's Pie since the ingredients are pretty similar and since the recipe from Cover & Bake is so flavorful. Then again, the Shepherd's Pie is more labor intensive than the stew.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Jelly, Nutella, or Baileys?

I don't have any Irish blood coursing through my veins, and neither does SP. So we don't celebrate St.Patrick's Day. At all. Green beer is not for us. I also don't usually cook 'theme meals' for holidays like St. Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo. But this year, every time I went past the liquor cabinet, I saw the bottle of Baileys Irish Cream that SP gave me for Christmas. Still unopened. And I suddenly had this huge need to make something with the Baileys for St. Patrick's Day. But what to make? It had to be not too complicated. It also had to just use Baileys - I didn't want to need to buy Irish Whiskey or Guinness.

Finally I thought of thumbprint cookies with a Baileys chocolate ganache filling. But then the thumbprint project got a little... complicated. I knew that SP would prefer the traditional jelly thumbprints, and we certainly have plenty of partially filled jelly/preserves jars in the refrigerator, so I decided I should make some jelly thumbprints. Then I started wondering how Nutella thumbprints would taste so I made some of those, too. End result, we have 3 kinds of thumbprint cookies: jelly, Nutella, and Baileys.

First, the jelly ones.
Raspberry, cherry, apricot, and peach. I like raspberry best.
Next, the Nutella ones.
I wasn't sure if I should fill the thumbprints before or after baking. Would the Nutella melt and run all over the sides of the cookie and then the cookie sheet? So I baked one Nutella thumbprint in a corner of the jelly filled cookie sheet as a test. The Nutella did not melt, nor did it harden. So I filled a dozen and baked them.

Instead of vanilla extract, we used a vanilla bean for the vanilla in the cookie dough. Some large pieces of bean are visible in the dough, like in this photo on the lower right part of the cookie:
In this one, you can see the tiny specks of vanilla. Yum!
A photo of the creamy Nutella interior.
Stacked in their own container. I decided to not toss all three kinds into the same container. Each kind got their own container. Since the Nutella baked, the tops got a wee bit hard, but not crispy hard. They just aren't the usual gooey consistency of Nutella so they aren't too messy to handle and stack in a container.
Finally, the Baileys thumbprints. These thumbprints were filled after baking.
I wanted a chocolate ganache flavored with Baileys. In my mind, melted chocolate, Baileys, and something like butter or cream to help the chocolate melt and get a bit smooth/creamy. But I wanted a recipe to follow since I'm not good at figuring out how much butter or cream or Baileys to use. So while I shaped and baked the cookies, SP looked up Baileys chocolate ganache recipes. He thought this one from Joy the Baker sounded good. I didn't ask too many questions about it.
It wasn't until after he completed the first steps of making the ganache that he mentioned chilling the mixture then mixing it in a mixer with powdered sugar and suddenly I had a bad feeling. That sounded like frosting, not ganache. But I didn't say anything because he'd already started making it, I was feeling tired (stupid spring ahead thing), and... well. I just let it go.

Turns out it is a delicious frosting-like ganache. I loved sampling it by itself. It is OK in the thumbprints. Not exactly what I wanted. I would not fill thumbprints with this ganache/frosting again. I would, however, frost a cake or cupcakes with this ganache/frosting.
Thumbprint recipe here. We doubled the dough to get about 4 dozen cookies.

Last time I made these here (May 2010). These jelly ones are just as tasty as last time. I think jelly thumbprints are my favorite. I'll have to keep searching for a tasty cookie with Baileys in it since these thumbprints are just OK. Or just make chocolate cupcakes with this frosting.