Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

1. I've been watching the snow squalls all morning. And listening to the wind howl. And watching the trees sway. A lot. And listening to the heat run. A lot. The world is again white. Instead of thinking that it looks kind of pretty, I'm mostly feeling exhausted from winter. And being sad that all the new plants we had the landscaper put in last summer look like they are completely dead. Winter is totally winning this year.

2. That being said, I am sort of hoping for the snow and not the ice this coming Sunday so that we can try out the new snowblower. And by we I mean SP.

3. Tomorrow is the 10 year anniversary of breaking my femur. The day that changed everything. In just seconds. I wish I could just forget the exact day it all happened, but I can't.

4. Maybe tomorrow will be paczki day? Hint, SP. We haven't had any since January, paczki 'season' ends soon, and tomorrow is a crappy day. Paczki will make everything better.

5. I did not read any books this past week. I have been flipping through the 4 new magazines that arrived and some travel books, trying to plan a vacation.

6.  It took me 2 hours this morning to read the newspaper because I kept zoning out, staring out the window and getting lost in thought. I am having lots of thoughts. Sometimes I wish I could empty my brain. Or turn it off.

7. Scandal returns tonight!

8. Three weeks until spring!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Happy Birthday SP! Chocolate Chip Irish Cream Pound Cake

Today is SP's birthday! Happy birthday! Usually, I bake him a cake for his birthday. Since it's on a Wednesday this year, I wasn't sure I wanted to bake a cake in the middle of the week. It usually takes us an entire week to eat a cake and with a weekend just days after his birthday, I wasn't sure we would eat enough of the cake before it dried out. So I asked him if he wanted a surprise on Wednesday or to have a cake on Sunday, a few days early. He picked Sunday.
I told him that since he would be home to assist me, he could pick whatever cake he wanted, but that I had been leaning towards a bundt cake. It seems a more manageable size for two people than a 2 layer cake plus there is not usually an icing to make. He agreed. I gave him all my bundt cake ideas and research and he picked Chocolate Chip Irish Cream Pound Cake.
It is very easy to make. I measured everything out and instead of me using the hand mixer at the table, he mixed up the batter in the stand mixer on the counter. I felt bad, him helping make his birthday cake, but then I figured if it came out awful, I could blame him for messing up his own cake!
Of course we had to try a small slice that afternoon after it cooled for a bit. It's very moist with a nice exterior 'crust.' There is a strong Irish cream taste, which surprised me because usually when I have an Irish cream ice cream, cake, cookie, cheesecake, I am disappointed in the Irish cream flavor. Not so this time!
We would make this cake again. SP is quite happy with his birthday cake. I am, too. Easy, moist, delicious. Yum!

Our changes to the recipe:
  • a generous 1/2 cup regular sized semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • regular full fat cream cheese
  • no powdered sugar on top
  • it took over an hour for our cake to bake
Original recipe can be found here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Milk Braised Pork Tenderloin

It might not seem like we have been braising a lot since, somehow, I seem to have started several braised food posts but not finished/published them. But trust me, we've been braising a lot. We are really enjoying the Dutch oven.
Back in January, we made Pork Loin Braised in Milk from Cover & Bake. I was a little apprehensive. A braising liquid of milk and white wine didn't sound too exciting. Also, in researching milk braised pork recipes, we discovered that the milk can get a little brown & clumpy. That didn't sound appealing.
The pork is browned in salt pork which has been chopped and rendered. This adds a lot more flavor to the dish. We bought salt pork at Market District. It's pretty fatty, jumpy stuff - look at this little guy who jumped from the pot on the stove, across the island, and nearly landed in a mug:
The recipe is pretty straight forward: season pork, brown pork in salt pork, add onion, carrot, celery (and garlic, if you wish) and herbs (bay leaf, sprigs of rosemary or thyme [we used dried]) then add milk and bake at 325, partially covered, until pork reaches 150 degrees.
The wine is added to the milk after the pork is cooked. The pork is removed to rest and the vegetables/herbs are fished out and discarded, then the wine is added and cooked until the sauce reduces to around 2 cups. Any brown clumps can be left as is or strained out or pureed.
The pork turned out very tender and moist. The sauce had a very nice flavor, but not a strong flavor of any one ingredient.
What I love about braising (aside from the ease of putting stuff in a pot in the oven and walking away for a few hours) is that the sauce/liquid is great for reheating purposes. It really helps keep the meat from drying out when it is reheated. Three meals for the week, served with biscuits and steamed broccoli.
How we did it:

about 1/4 lb salt pork, cubed
about 2.5 lb boneless pork loin
salt & pepper to season pork
1-2 onions, halved
no garlic
2-3 carrots, peeled and halves
2-3 celery ribs, halved
1 bay leaf
dried thyme sprinkled in (could use rosemary, could use fresh)
3.5 cups whole milk
1/3 c white wine

*For onion, celery, carrots in braises, we look at what we have in the refrigerator and what looks 'good' in the pot. Sometimes if the recipe calls for 1 medium carrot, we might use our last large carrot, or our last 2-3 smaller carrots, or if we only have 4 carrots left we might just use all 4. If, after we add the braising liquid, it doesn't cover it the meat, we add more liquid or remove some extra veggie.

See above for photos/directions.

The March 2014 issue of Cooks Illustrated has a very similar Pork Braised in Milk recipe.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Savory Hill

This past Saturday, we decided to try another 'new to us' restaurant: Savory Hill in Moon Township. It turns out it's nearly right across the street from where SP's dad lived when he lived in Moon Township. Before dinner, we did some shopping in the Robinson area and it wasn't until 20 minutes before our reservation, as we were sitting in the Home Depot parking lot, that I realized I had forgotten the camera. Oops. So these photos are courtesy of our cell phones, mostly my cell phone.
We were seated right away. There weren't too many people there when we arrived, but within minutes the place started to fill up. The decor is nondescript - not sterile, but not cozy/romantic, but not generic family chain restaurant. It seemed like a fairly large place, with white walls, lots of light, booths and tables, high ceilings, and wine bottle candles on each table. We ordered iced teas and some bread arrived while we looked over the menus.
There was a white bread and a light brown bread, which SP thinks was a wheat bread. There were three butters: whipped, honey, and garlic, The garlic butter was quite garlicky smelling. I stuck with the honey butter, which was delicious. We both liked it best and finished it!
We also each ordered a glass of wine: malbec for me, sauvignon blanc for SP. My malbec arrived in a huge glass.
It was the largest wine glass I have ever seen. It made me think of Courtney Cox's character on Cougar Town and her huge glass for wine. I had to use two hands because I was afraid of losing my grip and spilling red wine all over my white sweater. SP thought it was funny how huge the glass was next to my face, with me using both hands.
I decided to start with an order of Scallops Napoleon, pan seared scallop, crispy pancetta, asiago lemon bread crumbs, star anise gastrique.
I was worried the scallops might be too tough/overcooked because they were thinner than what I am accustomed to receiving. Happily, they weren't, they were nicely seared and seasoned, buttery and smooth, nice rounds of crispy pancetta underneath, fresh microgreens, and a gastrique that I enjoyed much more than I expected since usually I am not a huge fan of star anise flavor. It was deliciously sweet and slightly syrupy but not overpowering. We both mopped up the gastrique with our forks and some bread.
To my surprise, SP started with an order of  Bacon Horseradish Bites - deep fried bites of bacon, horseradish and cheddar crusted in breadcrumbs.
He liked them a lot, and I did, too. Then again, fried food is yummy and bacon is always yummy! It's an interesting idea, and tasty. I would like to try some of the other flavors of bites.
We shared a Chef's Garden Salad, baby lettuces, seasonal vegetable, goat cheese, honey champagne vinaigrette. Our server offered to split it on two plates for us, which was quite nice. A nice mix of crisp greens, blanched broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprout plus pickled beet for the seasonal vegetable, goat cheese, and a creamy dressing. This was nice for a change from the usual dinner salad, having the winter vegetables instead of cucumber and tomato and maybe shredded carrot like at many places. SP really enjoyed the vinaigrette.
For my entree I opted for Braised Short Rib, seasonal risotto and seasonal vegetable. The seasonal risotto was cauliflower risotto. The seasonal vegetables were the same as on the salad: cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrot.
The risotto was delicious and creamy, but unfortunately, I had neglected to ask about the garlic and this was quite a garlicky risotto. I could taste it as soon as I had one spoonful in my mouth, and then when I leaned down I could smell it. SP verified that it was garlicky. So I didn't eat any more of it because I was afraid of upsetting my stomach. Stupid unpredictable garlic sensitivity. The short rib was very flavorful, but I found it a bit fattier and harder to shred apart with only a fork than braised short ribs I have had at other restaurants.
SP ordered the Blood Orange Duck Special, with mashed rosemary potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The duck was medium rare. He said it was delicious but it was a tad rarer than he normally likes for medium rare. That being said, he isn't squeamish about rare foods, so this was fine. I liked his potatoes (since I wasn't eating the risotto I was eating his potatoes). He thought the seasonal vegetables were a tad undercooked, still a little too crisp, and I can see what he means, but I liked them since I don't like limp, soggy vegetables.
We had enough room to share a dessert. The Cinnamon Pear Tiramisu won over the Cinnamon Creme Brulee. It was presented differently than I expected but the cinnamon, pear, spice, cream flavors were delicious. I really liked all the soft pear slices - I always forget how much I like pears. We had no trouble polishing off this dessert! It was just the right size for us to share after everything else we ate.
Overall, we very much enjoyed our meal at Savory Hill. Our server was very nice. Iced teas and water were refilled. Plates were cleared after each course and before the next arrived (bread plates left in case we wanted more bread, which we did). It took a bit of time between the salad and entree courses, but we didn't have anywhere to be and we were enjoying a nice, relaxing evening out together, sipping wine, talking about SP's upcoming birthday plans, so even though we noticed, it wasn't an annoying, where the heck is my food kind of thing. I like that a restaurant like this is located so close to us/not in the city. We would go again - and as a bonus, if you're planning on going, keep an eye out for the Clipper Magazines (Robinson) with coupons for local places because we had a coupon for $10 off two dinner entrees, which was nice.

  Savory Hill on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 21, 2014

Homemade Pierogies

When I was a wee little girl, I never gave much thought to where my family came from. They just were. Around 4th grade, all that started to change. I somehow finally figured out that 'mom's mom' was actually my grandmother. That meant I had 2 grandmas like everyone else, not just one like I had always assumed. I guess I assumed that because we never talked to and never saw 'mom's mom' that meant she wasn't a grandma, and in a sense, that's true. I grew up with just one grandma in my life. One grandpa, too, since 'mom's dad' died before I was born. I also had just one aunt (my dad's sister) and one uncle (her husband). My other aunt/uncle didn't seem 'real' because they lived in CA with their children, my cousins. To this day, I think I have met my cousins just once in my life, maybe twice.

Around the time I figured out I really did have 2 grandmas, I was assigned a school project to fill out a family tree. Everyone at school seemed to know that their grandparents were German, or Irish. That seemed so odd to me – my family was just American, right? So I asked my parents why we weren't anything. I remember my dad looking at me and telling me I was half Russian, a quarter German, and a quarter English and that I should talk to my grandparents about the family tree. I was pretty stunned, especially about the Russian part. After all, back in those days, they were 'The Evil Empire.' I was actually kind of embarrassed to be Russian. And German? Weren't they bad people, too? What was wrong with my family?
That weekend we went to my grandparents' and I explained my school project to them and asked if my dad was telling the truth. My grandparents confirmed that, yes, dad was correct. I was floored. Then my grandpa proceeded to tell me that my last name wasn't the 'real' last name. After WW2, he legally changed his last name because 'it was not a good time to be Russian.' I didn't believe him, I just couldn't comprehend it, so we went down to the basement and he pulled out his high school and college yearbooks and showed me his photos, complete with the 'wrong' last name.

Back then, grandpa refused to talk much about his family. I don't think I ever met any of his 4 siblings, and his parents passed away before I was born. I have since done a lot of genealogical research and 'found' my dad's 'long lost' cousins from my grandpa's side of the family and I've started to fill in the blanks. My great-grandpa was from Belarus, my great-grandma from Lithuania, they met & married in Rhode Island. Grandpa left RI after college to work in PA and he never saw much of his family after that.
Grandpa married grandma, whose family was from Germany, coming to PA back in 1835. My 'mom's mom' was English, her family came to America back in the 1600's. The other “Russian' part was from my mom's dad's family, who came over in 1900. I have not yet found a city on any documents and they have listed their place of birth as Russia or Austria-Hungary, identified themselves as Austrian protestant, listed the languages spoken as Russian, Polish, and English, and attended a Ukrainian church. So let's go with Eastern European for sure, likely Ruthenian or Ukrainian.

SP's family is Eastern European as well, likely Polish.
All of which brings me to this unbelievable fact: I grew up in Pittsburgh, I am 50% Russian/Polish/Eastern European, and until my late teens, I had no idea what a pierogie was. My first pierogie was one of Mrs. T's frozen pierogies. My mom told me her dad's mom used to make pierogies for holidays/weddings/funerals. My dad's 'long lost' cousins told me my great-grandma made pierogies and one of the cousins still makes them every Christmas. But my family never made them, never ate them. 
My first ever pierogie
This past Christmas, SP & I made a list of some time consuming, perhaps slightly difficult dishes we would like to try making this year. Yes, blog fodder, but also we get bored eating the same things. Pierogies were on that list. We figured that with so much Eastern European blood coursing through our veins, it was shameful that we had never made our own pierogies. SP remembers helping his grandma make them when he was a young boy. He told me he remembers being in the kitchen with his 4 siblings, each of them performing a pierogie task while grandma oversaw it all. 
I spent a lot of time researching pierogie recipes. I was sure I wanted to make the most authentic pierogies ever. Sadly, SP's grandma had no written recipe - she just knew how to make the dough. The dough was my biggest fear. I've had pierogies with dough too thin, too thick, too gummy, too something. I also wanted a flavorful potato filling – not just boring mashed potatoes. Those are really rather bland.

In addition to going down the Googling wormhole, I consulted SP's Polish cookbook, direct from Poland (a gift from a friend who visited Poland). There are many pages devoted to pierogies. As it turns out, due to shifting borders and neighboring influences, there does not seem to be one truly authentic pierogie recipe. The cookbook from Poland had about 20 pages devoted to pierogie dough and fillings - Polish filling, Lithuanian filling, so many fillings. It was kind of overwhelming.
I decided to make pierogies a la SP & Yum Yum. We printed out several recipes and re-read the Polish cookbook and then made some decisions. Our dough would have sour cream in it for extra flavor in the dough. We decided to go with a pierogie dough recipe from King Arthur Flour (but we saw the same recipe/ingredient ratios from several sources). Also, we doubled it. If we were going to make pierogies, we were going to make more than 1-2 dozen.

We definitely wanted a potato & cheese filling. But I wanted a tasty interior - not bland or watery or gummy. So no flour mixed into the potato. And instead of boiling the potatoes, we baked them.
Texas SIL bakes her potatoes for homemade gnocchi and she said that baking instead of boiling potatoes makes a much tastier gnocchi. I had read that in several other sources and I  remembered reading to bake potatoes for pierogie filling because the baked potato is drier and the filing won't be too soggy/make soggy pierogies.

Instead of using the electric hand mixer to make the mashed potatoes (like we usually do), we used the hand masher to smush the potatoes. SP grated 8 ounces of cheddar and used about 3/4 of that in the potatoes along with a splash of heated milk. These were nice, firm potatoes - easy to shape into a ball to place in the middle of each dough round.
I was very thorough in my pinching shut of the pierogies. I didn't want any pierogie explosions when we boiled them! Happily, none exploded. Of course we had to try a few right away, so we fried 3 with some butter and onions.
So I'm just going to go ahead and proclaim these the best pierogies ever. We are incredibly happy with the results. We've been fighting over the last pierogie at dinner because these are so tasty. Not too doughy, the filling has hints of cheese and onion, but just enough to make your taste buds want more. We definitely want to make these again – we just have to find the time. The dough is quick, but does need to be refrigerated for a while. The potato filling is easy, too, but the potatoes do need an hour or more to bake. The rolling/filling/pinching/boiling/draining part plus clean up took us 2 hours.
 How we did it:
  • Made a double batch of pierogie dough using this recipe
  • Baked 8 baking potatoes until tender - in the future, we will only bake about 6 since we had quite a bit leftover potato filling
  • Scooped out the potato, mashed it with a hand masher, about 2 tablespoons of butter, half a finely diced, sauteed onion, about 6 ounces of cheddar cheese, and about 1/2 cup heated milk (just like SP's grandma, only she boiled her potatoes)
  • Rolled the dough out to about 1/8" thick and used a 2" round cookie cutter to cut the rounds
  • Placed 1-2 teaspoons potato filling on each round, dipped finger in water and moistened edges of round, folded in half and pinched shut
  • Cooked pierogies in boiling water - they are done when they float to the top
  • Used spider strainer to lift out pierogie and transfer to colander
  • Cooled in colander for a few moments and transferred to cookie sheet lined with silicone baking sheet or parchment paper to completely cool
  • Placed one tray in freezer for a few hours then packaged pierogies in a container to keep in freezer
  • Placed second tray pierogies in a container in the refrigerator until ready to saute in butter with onions and enjoy

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

1. Hubby broke the Valentine's Day Rules and bought me a card and a heart shaped chocolate from Sarris. I got him nothing. Thanks for making me feel like a horrible wife!
2. He also came home with a special dessert from Gaby et Jules. A pink heart with mascarpone mousse and lime. It was very light and I enjoyed it, but I think I prefer the palmiers and eclairs.
3. The snow blower issue is finally resolved. After a lot of hassle. An exchange was supposed to take place on Monday, but Monday morning at 7 am we received a call that it was out of stock so delivery wouldn't happen. It was rescheduled for Tuesday but then was cancelled Tuesday morning because of weather. It was rescheduled for today and it actually happened! It looks like it's fine, but I guess we'll find out for sure when SP uses it for the first time. I find myself hoping for a snow storm.

4. Dessert this week is the Cherry & Chocolate Shortbread Cookies we baked last weekend. I guess we've been on a shortbread kick lately. Good stuff.

5. We bought too many bags of stuffing cubes at Thanksgiving, so we decided to use a bag in the pantry and have Thanksgiving in February last weekend. We bought some turkey cutlets and seasoned them with poultry seasoning, made sausage stuffing, and made the sauteed green beans & mushrooms. No pumpkin pie, though.

6. I like the warmer weather except that it seems to have awakened the stinkies. I caught 4 of them yesterday, creepily crawling around the living room. Part of me wanted to torture them by burying them outside in a snow drift, but I figured they would probably survive, reproduce, and then even more tiny terrors would worm their way inside through a teeny crack, so I did the usual: trapped them under an old juice glass and waited for SP to get home and dispose of them.

7. I am looking forward to a warm (50 degrees) Saturday. Even though it is going to be below freezing, again, just days later, at least Saturday will be nice-ish. As in, I won't turn into a popsicle the second I leave the house in spite of being bundled up to the point that I can barely move.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crab Cakes with Red Pepper Sauce

Several weeks ago, we made Crab Cakes for dinner, using the recipe we always follow, which is from Chef Chuck at Cooks and Eats. I love the simplicity and flavor of his crab cakes recipe - no ingredients overpowering the crab. I had a hard time finding the recipe online and I had not printed it out - whoops! When I did find the recipe, it was posted with a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce as an accompaniment. That sounded tasty, so we made the sauce, too.
The Roasted Red Pepper Sauce is quite easy to make. We bought a jar of roasted red peppers (instead of roasting our own as we sometimes do) and pureed all the ingredients in the handy, dandy Magic Bullet that we use for breakfast smoothies.
We always use an ice cream scoop to ensure the crab cakes are the same size.
Flattened and frying in butter & olive oil.
Toasty brown after frying & baking. I love the crispy crust.
I am surprised we have never before made a sauce for with our crab cakes. They were extra delicious with this sauce - definitely something we'll make again in the future. The sauce is also tasty as a dipping sauce for breaded chicken tenders. 
The original, full recipe can be found here. We used only one can of crab, not 3 cans, so we adapted the recipe as follows:

For the Crab Cakes:
  • 1 can crab
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/3 c mayonnaise
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • 2/3 c panko
  • dried parsley, sprinkled in from jar
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil & butter

For the Roasted Red Pepper Sauce:
  • about 1/2 roasted red pepper (from a jar)
  • 1/4 c mayonnaise
  • 1/4 c Greek yogurt
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • dried parsley, sprinkled in from jar
  • salt and pepper