For several weekends this month, we were too sick to bother baking an evening dessert treat. The past 2 weekends, we've been busy enough that we don't have time to make anything too involved. Quick & easy is what we needed, or a trip to the grocery store for dessert, but that's not as good as homemade dessert. Loaf cakes or 9x9 cakes seem quick & easy - mix the batter and bake. Many years ago, I made a Cocoa Spice Snacking Cake from a cookbook my mom had (Hershey's Fabulous Desserts) so I pulled out the cookbook, realized we had everything except the applesauce, added it to the weekend grocery list, and Sunday afternoon we baked.
It is very quick & easy. Mix together wet ingredients with cocoa, add to dry ingredients, mix well, pour into pan, bake. The recipe uses a 9x9 pan which is just the right the size for the 2 of us. It's very moist, lots of cinnamon & nutmeg flavor. Yum! Even though these look like brownies, they definitely aren't. None of that rich, fudgy, chocolate flavor, which is fine with me. SP cut it into 16 squares, just enough for a few bites of dessert in the evening.
We'd definitely make this again. It seems better suited for fall with the cinnamon & nutmeg flavors and the applesauce, but it's not as if winter has left us yet - it was still pretty windy & chilly over the weekend. This cake is a wonderful treat with a cup of hot tea.
1. Things are getting a little disturbing here. It's sort of starting to be spring, which means the return of wildlife. I have no idea how our overly developed area even has all this wildlife, all seemingly living in our backyard, but we do. Right now, I'm going to focus on birds. We have a lot of birds in our yard.
I'm not much of a bird fan. They kind of disgust me. I shudder in horror at the thought of a bird as a pet. So dirty and gross. I refuse to do anything to attract birds. No bird bath. No bird feeders. When our yard guy suggested some shrubs to attract pretty birds, like hummingbirds, I said no way. We do not need more birds.
We opened the sheers in the dining room so the sunshine could shine brightly on our fledgling garden. Our windows are pretty darn clean. We have a wonderful woman who comes once a month to give our home a good cleaning and she is very big on having the windows clean, particularly the kitchen, living room, and dining room windows. I have no problem with this. I like clean. I am a clean freak.
But apparently, some combination of open sheers, super clean windows, and bright sunshine has the birds flying into the windows. Thunk! Thunk! It happens 6-8 times a day and scares the heck out of me every time. At first it was just the dining room, but now it's the kitchen, too. My lovely, clean windows now have, shall I say, bird residue on them. In multiple spots. It's pretty disgusting. You can count the number of birds that hit the window by the number of... residue spots.
Worse, thudding off a window kills many of these birds. Instantly. So we have bird corpses on the ground outside the windows. So disgusting. And it's still cold. And we're still sick. So no one wants to go remove the bodies. We half jokingly said that maybe the stray cats would handle disposal for us.
Um. Yeah. They, or another critter, did. The level of disgusting rises because then the only evidence of what happened is a pile of feathers on the ground. I suppose I should be glad it's just feathers and not... shall I say, more? Like the time I worked in the USX Tower on the 50th floor, wandered over to gaze out a window, and found a bird head, just a head, sitting on the sill. That was disgusting.
So every time a bird hits the window, it scares me, I fear the window breaking, so I go to check on things. Even worse than an unmoving bird body is discovering a stunned, obviously injured bird wheezing & struggling to breathe on the ground. It makes me feel sorry for the bird. And I dislike birds.
So yes, it's getting a little disturbing around here.
2. I am finally sort of feeling better, but now my eyes are watery and I'm still sneezing, so I fear I moved right from bad cold to bad allergies. Terrific!
4. Last weekend we watched 'Rush.' I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would given that it's about car racing and I despise car racing. This weekend we have 'Gravity' to watch.
5. Since we're still trying to kick the last of the evil cold from our systems, we made a big batch of chicken noodle soup for dinners this week. There really is something about chicken noodle soup that makes you feel better.
6. On last wildlife-window thing: this past weekend I was washing dishes and something jumped on the window sill. I was so startled I dropped whatever I was washing in the sink. I looked up and saw a squirrel watching me. It was so close! It pressed its little nose against the window and stared at me - I was so afraid to even move! I know it couldn't get through the window, but it was right there, above the kitchen sink, just 3 feet away. Then I started wondering if I could get the camera before it darted away, but I just couldn't stop looking that bugger right in the eye. Finally it licked the window - yes, it licked the window - and darted off.
On Sunday, March 16, as I snuggled under a blanket in the recliner, blowing my nose into tissue after tissue after tissue and wheezing from congestion, SP headed to the garage to get away from me. He had plans - garden plans. Since early February, he's been talking about what to grow and when to start. I haven't paid much attention - I was a little discouraged after last year when a few of the tomato plants died in a May frost, the cucumbers never appeared, and the zucchini took forever to debut.
There was, as usual, much discussion of where exactly to place the little starter plants. We finally settled on the dining room. We put up a small folding table directly in front of the window. The window gets a lot of afternoon sun. We opened the sheers to maximize the sunshine. There also is a heating vent directly under the window, so the hope is it will blow heat right on the plants and keep them from getting too cold (the dining room can get a wee bit chilly). Here's the set up:
He got a little seed crazy this year. Left unsupervised on several shopping trips, he bought seeds for flowers, herbs, and vegetables. I was a little annoyed - couldn't we just buy the usual petunia plants? Buy cucumber and tomato plants? No, he wants to try from seed. OK then. It's his project. It wasn't long before we saw signs of growth:
It's been just 10 days. I'm not sure what is in each square. SP has a master grid on his computer. The 3 small green pots all have basil - we grow, and use, a lot of basil. The other herbs are the usual: oregano, thyme, dill, chives, parsley, rosemary, mint. The petunias are in there somewhere (assorted colors). And there are various kinds of tomatoes, some cucumbers, some zucchini, and some beans.
It's kind of nice, nurturing these little babies, checking on them every day, seeing what new green sprouts there are, making sure they are moist and in the line of sunlight. I talk to them. Yup - crazy plant lady. I fret over their health. I'm a little worried we might have to buy a bunch of bigger pots for the stuff that seems to be really taking off and growing quickly. It might be ready for more space before May and we'll have to re-pot it before planting it outside in the garden box.
I'm on Day 13 of being sick. I am finally feeling better, but I'm still pretty tired and still needing to use a fair number of tissues. At least I am no longer taking cold medicine. SP is feeling better, too. Even though we are feeling better, we still don't have much energy, not even to feed ourselves. So this week for dinner, we decided to have 'breakfast for dinner' a few nights.
Specifically, last night we decided to make Blueberry Pancakes. SP was craving Blueberry Muffins (for breakfast & snacking), but then he saw a recipe in my binder for Blueberry Pancakes that uses cake flour and he decided he wanted to try it for dinner. I have had this recipe for a very long time (since the August 2002 issue of Bon Appetit) but never bothered to try it. Usually, I just add blueberries to whatever batter I am making or plop them on top of whatever pancake/waffle I make.
These are delicious pancakes, and the recipe made just the right amount of batter for us to have pancakes for two dinners.
Alongside his pancakes, SP made himself a dippy egg. We've been enjoying fresh eggs from my friend's 'peeps' (as she calls them) and they are a bit larger than supermarket eggs but much eggier tasting (which is a good thing). She gave us two dozen eggs; so far we've used a bit more than one dozen. I hope her peeps keep providing us with eggs!
We also cooked sausage. Not Ricci's this time, but still tasty, although I think I cooked it a little too long.
Honeydew on the side plus maple syrup and a bit of butter for the pancakes.
Pancakes are one of my favorite foods but we rarely make them. I can't quite explain why, but there's just something about the flavor and texture. I feel so happy when I swallow each tasty pancake-y, syrupy, fruity bite. It's like when I eat lasagna. I start to lose control and I just eat and eat and eat until I'm ready to burst. Waffles are good but can be a little too crisp. French Toast is really good, too, but a lot depends on the bread and sometimes the eggy crust is not cooked enough/cooked too much. But pancakes - I think they might be my favorite of those 3 breakfast foods we like to make. But not just any pancake. Sometimes the pancake is disappointing or bland. These are not. These make my taste buds and belly happy.
We actually split the batter into two parts. For my 'half' we kept it 'as is' with the cake flour and all purpose flour. Then we made another half batch using cake flour and whole wheat flour (for SP's pancakes). We thawed frozen blueberries and cherries, so these actually were Blueberry-Cherry Pancakes.
1. Day 9 of sickness. I'm starting to get frustrated that it doesn't seem to be getting better. Frustration makes me cry. Crying makes me feel sicker.
2. SP is now sick. He's on his second sick day from work.
3. The house feels so germy, like we should have a huge tent dropped over us and be quarantined.
4. Needless to say there is not much interest in anything except sleeping and having tissues nearby. Dinners this week: Oxtail Soup and Chicken Marsala with mushrooms, asparagus, and rice (since we ate a lot of pasta last week).
5. Dessert this week: Cookies from Market District. Hamantaschen (filled with cherry) and Chocolate Thumbprints.
6. We both filled out basketball brackets, but since we're sick, we spent about 5 seconds doing it. I predict that by the end of today, our brackets will be busted.
7. Time for another dose of medicine and to head back to bed.
I am now on Day 6 of the Worst Cold Ever. OK, I've probably suffered through equally awful colds or even worse colds, but when you feel this miserable, it becomes the Worst Cold Ever. I am so disgustingly sick right now that I don't even want to be around me.
I didn't get to go see Once at the Benedum on Saturday because I had a fever. I spent that morning shivering and having goosebumps before finally taking my temperature and confirming that it wasn't just chilly in the house. I took an aspirin, which brought my fever down, so I was holding out hope to make it to the show, but after my shower, a sneezing fit resulted in a nosebleed so then I was faced with a runny nose and sneeze from my cold but also nosebleeds from the medicine and too much nose trauma and it was just A Huge Mess. I stayed home with tissues plugged up my nose.
I told SP to leave the dinner table last night because I was a coughing, choking mess of snot and phlegm and food and no one wants to be around that (he was done eating but I was struggling through an agonizingly slow eating process interrupted by sick fits). He was trying to be nice, you know, in sickness & in health, but really, he's just praying he stays far enough away to not catch this. We've both been wiping down door handles, light switches, remotes, etc., with Clorox Wipes. Total germ paranoia. Every dish I touch, every dish I even look at, goes in the dishwasher.
Last night at dinner I was also having panic attacks because the chest phlegm/cough fits were so bad that at times I was unable to catch my breath and I felt like I couldn't get enough air in my lungs to stay alive. The wheezing was disturbing. So off he went again, to buy another medicine, while I tried to remain calm and breathe.
All that stuff in the photo? Purchased in the last week (except for the aspirin). The amount of money we have spent on cold crap in 6 days is ridiculous. Why can't there be an all-in-one medicine? I went from orange liquid for general cold to blue for general plus runny nose but not chest congestion to red for night-time to blue for general plus chest congestion but not runny nose.
And the tissues... thank goodness for Costco.
Really hoping this cold ends soon. Aside from my misery, I feel bad for SP having to deal with me and the germs floating around. He was a little too eager to head out the door to work today! But if he does catch this disease, he's got his choice of orange, blue, or red medicine.
Another post about braising with beer! The Beer Braised Brisket was so yummy that a couple of weeks later we decided to try Beer Braised Pork. Much as we long for spring and lighter meals, it's still cold enough to want braised meat meals with comforting, warm sides like macaroni & cheese and pureed cauliflower.
This pork turned out amazing. The sauce is really good, too, full of carrots and onions.
The usual braising ingredients: meat, carrots, onions, beer, bay leaves. Plus, one 'unusual' ingredient: whole cloves. We've added rosemary and thyme to our braises, but not cloves.
As usual, brown the meat, remove it, saute the veggies, return the meat to the pot, add the liquid and seasonings, place in oven and braise until done. Above is right before going in the oven, below is after braising. Lots of brown goo on the sides of the Dutch oven! But here's what we are loving about this Dutch oven: even though my mom bought us the special enamel cleaner, we have not had to use it. All that brown stuff easily wipes off with some running water and a soft sponge.
We put our chunky sauce in a gravy boat.
Beautiful sliced pork:
Add a spoonful of sauce and enjoy:
We didn't use quite as many onions as the recipe said but next time we definitely would. The slow, braised onion flavor in the sauce is sooooo good. Like we could eat spoonfuls of the sauce good.
We didn't follow a recipe. At least, I don't recall actually following a recipe although we did consult several brisket recipes and specifically several beer braised brisket recipes.
Our brisket was close to 3 lbs. SP seasoned it with salt & pepper and then browned it in some melted bacon fat. Instant amazing smell in the house.
The usual braising veggies: celery, carrot, and onion, nestled around the brisket.
A bottle of beer and then enough beef broth to cover the meat. Throw in a couple of bay leaves and sprinkle in some thyme.
A few hours later, tender and juicy brisket. It was easy to pull apart with a fork.
Definitely something we'll make again. It reheats nicely, too. We divided the slices into 2-3 containers and poured the liquid on top to keep it moist.
2.5~3 lb brisket
carrots, celery, and onion, diced
2 bay leaves
1 bottle beer
salt & pepper
bacon fat (if desired)
Season brisket with salt and pepper. Brown in Dutch oven in bacon fat (or oil). Remove and let it rest. Saute veggies in Dutch oven until they begin to soften. Place brisket back into pot. Pour in beer. Add enough beef broth to just cover meat. Add bay leaves and as much thyme as desired. Place lid on top, place Dutch oven in 325 degree oven and braise brisket until done, about 3.5 hours.
1. SP finally got to test the new snow blower and he was quite happy with it. He has to get used to it and get it set right -- the first pass on the driveway, he blew the snow into the neighbor's driveway. Oops.
2. While the snow blower might be kind of fun to use (especially the first time), we are still hoping the snow is over.
3. It was about this time last year that we bought our herb seeds, dirt, fertilizer, and little grow containers. This year, I cannot imagine starting seeds in March. Even if we keep them inside. It's still too darn cold. There's still snow surrounding the little garden box in the front yard.
4. We've been trying to re-book/re-plan last year's vacation that we had to cancel because I fell and broke my hip. It's not going well. The hotel we booked in city #1 got a lot of publicity over the past year and availability is tight. We have a tentative reservation but it's not exactly when we want - and it's a bit more expensive. The hotel in city #2 is now $100/night more than last year. So we have to do hotel research, again. And the flights are looking to be $200 more for a total of $400 more in air fare than last year.
5. So now we are reconsidering vacation. We're considering going to just one of the two cities and having a one week vacation instead of two week vacation. We are also considering other cities.
After a couple hours of research today, I have a vacation planning headache.
Yup. I'm pretty sick of winter. It's March. March = spring. Therefore, no more snow. Of course Mother Nature has different ideas. I'm ready for spring foods and flavors but it's still snowy and cold. So we came up with a solution: BBQ Meatloaf!
Meatloaf is cold weather food, comforting on cold evenings. But slathered with BBQ sauce, it's like a mini dose of spring/summer for me because I think of BBQ sauce foods as grilled foods and grilling, in our home, doesn't happen in winter because the grill is usually buried under snow or being dripped on by icicles.
SP made a huge 2 lb meatloaf - 1 lb ground beef and 1 lb ground pork. He mixed in our usual flavorings of mustard, Worcestershire, onion, ketchup, egg, bread crumbs. Then he brushed the loaf with some of the Soergel's Sweet & Smokey BBQ Sauce.
About an hour and 15 minutes later, it was ready. It smelled so good!
We had extra BBQ sauce for on the side. It was delicious, and moist thanks to the onions and egg. The nice thing about meatloaf is that it can be made in advance and reheated. We didn't eat this the day we made it - we let it cool, sliced it and divided it into 3 containers for 3 meatloaf meals during the week.
It's a good 'make in advance' dish, too. We made it, let it cool, and divided it into 2 containers for reheating during the week.
I love whole grain mustard.
The finish the meal, we had twice baked potatoes. We've never made them because they are so much work (well, easy, but time consuming) BUT after the pierogie making day, we had leftover mashed potatoes.
SP had saved the potato skins, so we stuffed them with the leftover mashed potatoes and put them in the freezer. They don't even need to thaw before reheating - we took them out of the freezer about an hour before dinner and reheated them alongside the meatloaf and cauliflower at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes.
Delicious and comforting. But I'm still ready for spring and more exciting vegetables and grilling outside and growing herbs.
We never measure when we make meatloaf. Not terribly helpful, I know. We use ground pork and ground beef, about 1 lb each. Finely dice some onion (about half an onion). One egg. We just sprinkle in bread crumbs (no more than 1/2 cup, if that; we don't like a lot of bread crumb flavor), mustard (1-2 spoonfuls), ketchup (2-3 squeezes), Worcestershire (about 2-3 tsp) - it all depends on how much of each flavor you like/want in your meatloaf. Salt & pepper. The egg helps bind it. Don't use too many bread crumbs - you just need a bit. Shape into desired shape and bake until cooked through.
Bake as many baking potatoes as you want. Cool slightly. Slice in half, scoop out insides, add seasoning you desire and turn into flavored mashed potatoes. Fill the skins with the mashed potato mixture. Bake until heated through/golden on top.
This past weekend we got have another 'date day.' We had tickets to see Porgy & Bess at the Benedum and it was terrific. I had seen it once before, many years ago, but I had forgotten how amazing and bittersweet and sad yet uplifting it is.
Then we got to go to dinner at another 'new to us' place: Butcher and the Rye. It's located across from Heinz Hall and opens at 5 pm, which was when we had made reservations, but since the show ended around 4:30 pm, we walked around for a bit and then huddled out of the wind in the 'entryway' waiting for the restaurant to open.
Butcher and the Rye is from the same guys (Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik) who opened Meat & Potatoes. I love how the two places seem similar, and yet so different at the same time. The lighting inside is very low, so even with the fancy 'better in low light' camera, the photos are still pretty darn dark. I tried to use our little table lamp guy as a flashlight for photos but with very minimal success!
In addition to a dimly lit interior, it's pretty eclectic inside. We were seated on the first floor (wheelchair) though up one step - when SP made the reservation, he was asked if this was OK, and said yes. When we arrived, the hostess again asked if it was OK, and several employees offered to help lift the wheelchair up the step. SP is pretty good at one step, but this is a bit of a big step, so we just had someone 'spot' us to make sure I didn't fall out of the wheelchair!
I wasn't quite sure how I felt about the mounted deer heads gazing down upon me! Lots of mirrors, which reflect the candles and table lights. Above our table was a huge antler chandelier - the above photo is the camera on the table aimed up at the underside of the chandelier. Below is the chandelier (and the wall of whiskey/bourbon) reflected in a mirror on the wall of the area in which we dined, plus a candle and bottles of wine on a wine counter.
Here's the thing about drinking alcoholic beverages: it can be a budget buster! In the past, we've usually limited ourselves to a glass or two of wine on special occasion dinners (birthdays, anniversaries, vacation dining) or maybe SP had a beer somewhere (I don't drink beer). For various reasons, we find ourselves in a happier budget place these days and are more likely to have a cocktail when dining out. Plus, the cocktail scene in Pittsburgh is changing. Some might say it's already changed and I am late to see this (or write about it), but I was limiting myself before. I wouldn't even look - I'd avoid temptation. That has changed. I allow myself to be tempted. With places like Meat & Potatoes, Grit & Grace, and Butcher and the Rye (and places we have not yet been but have heard about, like Livermore and others) there seems to be a movement toward more attention to cocktails and better crafted cocktails. I never much liked drinks like cosmopolitans, margaritas, Long Island iced tea, etc.
I've always been a whiskey & bourbon girl. It always got me funny looks when I was out with my girlfriends going to bars in my 20's - they'd order cosmos or fruity girly drinks and I'd get a whisky & soda. It might be because my parents always drank Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours when I was a kid, and those are the first cocktails I sipped. Put me in a place like Butcher and the Rye and I'm all 'oh my gosh give me all of the drinks!' But I am a lightweight, so I settled for 2. I started with a Butchers Bride which had Wigle rye, lime, grapefruit, and, I think, campari. SP opted for a Manhattan. They arrived in what I think of as my grandma's old time champagne glasses! They were beautiful cocktails. And tasty. I loved the favor of the Manhattan. My Butchers Bride was amazing! Dry (a wee bit sweet) - just lovely.
A bit later on, I decided to try Lions Tail - Buffalo Trace, lime, allspice dram. It, too, was a delicious cocktail, but I prefer the Butchers Bride.
The food. Um, we kind of wanted to order one of almost everything. But we settled for ordering what we figured would be too much food and we'd take some home for lunch. We ordered 5 small plates and 1 large plate.
First up: Sunday Gravy - tomatoes, lamb neck, olive oil, ricotta, warm country bread. So good! We both love lamb and lamb simmered in a tomato sauce, topped with cheese and served with bread - well, our high expectations were met. We fought over the last bit. Used the bread to mop up every last drop of sauce. And admitted that last week's lamb ragu we made didn't come close to the deliciousness of this.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts - brown butter, dill, parmigiano reggiano, preserved lemon aioli. Brussels never photograph well. Again, so good. Maybe better than the ones at Meat & Potatoes. We asked for the aioli on the side but it didn't smell/taste garlicky, so I ate a bit. I never thought I'd be scraping up every last roasted bit of Brussels from a bowl. Or making sure I got my 'fair share' before SP hoovered them all up.
There was never any doubt that we were going to order the Mac N Cheese. Taleggio, fontina, goat cheese, cheddar, parmesan. Five cheeses! And bread crumbs! And no discernible garlic! Creamy, cheesy, delicious bowl of heaven. I used some bread from the Sunday Gravy to mop up all the cheesy goodness.
The above 3 dishes arrived together to start. Next to arrive, after we had finished the first 3, was Crispy Pig Wing - Thai chili sauce, pickled mango salad, cilantro. Not my kind of flavors, but SP pulled off a bite of meat for me and it was yummy. He was surprised and impressed at the tenderness of the meat inside given the crispy exterior. I think I read somewhere that it's braised first, then fried. The pickled mango was nicely tangy and still crisp even though it was pickled.
Next the Country Ham arrived - honey lime creme fraiche, orange marmalade, and buttermilk biscuit. There were 3 biscuits topped with thinly sliced ham, dollops of orange marmalade, and pools of honey lime creme fraiche. This is an example of a pretty simple, usually kind of boring, idea taken to a really yummy next level. The biscuits were flaky and yummy, the ham was thin and hammy, but the marmalade and sauce elevated this to 'oh my gosh this is amazing' level. There was a hint of cinnamon, I think, in the marmalade, a nice tartness from the lime. The biscuits were great for mopping up the sauce! Yes, there was a lot of mopping up of sauce.
Our large plate arrived last: Seared Scallops with Blue Crab Risotto with kale and mushrooms. I was pretty full by the time this arrived, but I remember the scallop being nicely seared and so buttery smooth inside. There was a lovely flavor of crab in the creamy risotto. We both were full so we ate the scallops and risotto and did our best with the kale/mushrooms, etc., but ultimately left a bit of the veggies on the plate.
The bill comes in a cute little notebook - with a rabbit holding a cleaver! I'm calling it the homicidal bunny.
We will definitely be back. The drinks and food were terrific. Our server was great - I asked for her opinion on some cocktails, she answered my garlic questions. She brought our many plates of food at a nice pace. Water was kept filled, finished plates removed. When we left, an employee 'paved the way' for the wheelchair through the bar area, which wasn't super crowded but just crowded enough, and that was much appreciated.
I kind of wish Butcher and the Rye hadn't been so darn good because now I'm going to have a hard time deciding between all the delicious places we've eaten in the Cultural District. We have 2 more shows left in this season, reservations already after one of them, and now I have a tough decision for the one remaining dinner! I guess we'll have to subscribe to next season's Broadway show series so I can check out all these places again -- or we'll just have to change our thinking from "restaurants in the area are 'after a show' places" to "restaurants in the Cultural District are anytime places."