Friday, January 30, 2015

Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

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

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

Recipe here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

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

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

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

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

5. The Americans is back, too.

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

German Potato Salad

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

Basic German Potato Salad Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sonoma Grille

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

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

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

Neither of us ordered dessert because we were too full.

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

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

  Sonoma Grille on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


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

Recipe here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Picnic Cafe (Georgia)

Center of Square in Dahlonega, the Gold Museum
Surprise, surprise! I forgot to finish the final post from our holiday trip to GA. Whoops! Our last day there, we met up with my mom, SIL, and niece to walk around the town square and wander through the shops. Around noon, we were hungry, and so was mom, so we decided to grab a quick lunch at a favorite Dahlonega lunch spot: Picnic Cafe. SIL & niece continued shopping since they were not hungry. Of course I forgot to take any photos of the entrance or interior and I nearly forgot the food until SP reminded me.
Chicken Salad Sandwich with Tomato Soup and a side of fruit
It had been a few years since our last trip to GA (since 2011, I think!). Picnic Cafe looks much the same, but this time when SP ordered iced tea, there was no lime wedge - kind of disappointing since that was a nice surprise/treat last time we were there.

We all ordered sandwiches with soup (tomato soup for everyone). SP was happy to be able to choose his bread and he chose a wheat bread for his chicken salad.
Mom chose egg salad on croissant with a side of potato salad.
I chose pimiento cheese on croissant with a side of potato salad.
The pimiento cheese was yummy, but a wee bit mayonnaise-y for me. When we make it, we use the bare minimum amount of mayo required to make it come together. It also seemed to lack pimiento. I couldn't really taste it. But that didn't keep me from eating all of the cheese and croissant!
I really liked the potato salad. Yes, it was very creamy, lots of mayo, but also some sour cream that gave it a nice, different taste for me since we never put sour cream in our potato salad. I think I liked the potato salad more than the pimiento cheese!

The tomato soup was very tasty, too, but I gave most of mine to SP since I had way too much food anyway and I know he loves soup.

There are some new restaurants on the square since we last were there and the pizza place is gone (Caruso's) but Picnic Cafe remains, and that makes me happy because I really like it for a quick, filling, casual lunch. The servers are really friendly, too. We didn't get any treats this time, mostly because we were full but also because SP & I hauled 10 kinds of cookies to GA and we were starting to get cookied out!

Picnic Cafe & Dessertery on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 12, 2015

Parmesan Chive Smashed Potatoes

When we made the Braised Lamb Shanks with Olives, Lemon, and Tomatoes, we decided on two side dishes: steamed broccoli and smashed potatoes. I'm not sure why smashed potatoes popped into my mind. I've only had them at restaurants. We've never made them, never even thought to make them. SP said they sounded good plus, they'd be something new.

Later that night, I was flipping through a cookbook my mom gave me for Christmas: Ina Garten's Make It Ahead. Lo & behold, there was a recipe for
Parmesan Chive Smashed Potatoes. So we decided to follow her recipe.
Smashed potatoes are easy but they are a little time consuming because you first boil the potatoes for 17 to 20 minutes, drain them, smash them, bake them for 25-30 minutes, sprinkle with parmesan, and bake another 2-3 minutes. They take about an hour and they make a lot more dirty dishes than simply baking potatoes or roasting potatoes. But, personally, I find these the second tastiest of the potatoes we make (cheesy scalloped potatoes are the best) so the extra work and dirty dishes are worth it.
We used only red potatoes and made enough for 2 meals. For us, that was 2~2.5 potatoes per person per meal. We packaged the leftovers in a glass container and reheated them for 20 minutes in the oven.

The parmesan makes a nice little crunchy, salty bite with the soft potato. I would have preferred fresh chives, but since it's winter we had to settle for dried. These are definitely a make again side dish. Also - it's fun to smash the potatoes!

Recipe here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

1. I don't do New Year resolutions. But I think I might set a goal for this year: to finally, after 4 years, finish the cross-stitch I am working on. The photo above is from 9 June 2011, the day I started this cross-stitch. I used to work daily on my cross-stitch projects, even if only for a half hour or so, but in the past 2 years, I've lost interest, I suppose. I go 3-4 months without even picking it up. One time, I moved the cross-stitch bag to the sunroom and then forgot all about it for 5 months until I glanced in the sunroom one day and saw it there, slowly freezing over the winter months in the unheated sunroom. It's almost complete. I just need to do all the final detail work, like the back-stitching and tassels. But sometimes I find that part more difficult than the cross-stitching.

2. We finished watching season 2 of OITNB. I was "meh" about the show when we started watching, but as it progressed, I got more & more interested. Even though it's been out for a while, I won't spoil anything other than to day we really enjoyed the finale - Go Rosa!

3. Last Sunday we watched Galavant on ABC. I am torn. At times, it was very clever and amusing but at other times I wondered if it bordered a bit on that stupid humor I can't stand. We'll probably keep watching since there are only 3 more hours.

4. Downton Abbey is back! One of our favorite shows.

5. I finished reading Station Eleven. It's not my usual kind of book. The side of the book had a Sci-Fi/Fantasy sticker on it. Ugh. Really not a Sci-Fi/Fantasy person, but I decided to give it a try because it seems to have popped up on many lists for one of the best books of 2014. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world, after a virus wipes out 90%+ of the world's population. Maybe I'm a little "post-apocalyptic world"-ed out after The Walking Dead, the Justin Cronin trilogy (although I am looking forward to book 3, whenever it comes out), Contagion, etc. Overall, I felt letdown by the book. I felt it didn't quite live up to all the praise it has received.

6. We roasted a chicken on Sunday and have eaten chicken for dinner for the past 4 nights. It's a really tasty chicken, and dinners have been super easy and super quick, but I'm sick of chicken. We've been poor planners since the holidays, so it looks like if I do not want chicken tonight, I can have eggs or dried pasta with jarred sauce.

Or pizza. Ordering pizza is always a good idea.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Braised Lamb Shanks with Olives, Lemon, and Tomatoes

Sometime in the past 2 months, SP found lamb shanks on sale at Market District and bought two. We put them in the freezer and decided they would be our New Year's treat. We just had to figure out the components of the braise. All of our lamb braising attempts have been tasty but not quite as tasty as braised lamb we've had when out at restaurants.

In spite of our skepticism about brushing molasses all over lamb shanks and using a lot of sweet paprika (especially since I HATED the Chicken Paprika dish we once made), we decided to try this recipe: Braised Lamb Shanks with Olives, Lemon, and Tomatoes. I think the lemon, kalamatas, and tomatoes won us over.
At least we got to use more of the molasses we opened to make the Triple Ginger cookies.
Brushed with molasses, coasted in flour & paprika, browned in the Dutch oven, and then nestled in a sauce of white wine, tomatoes and juice, chicken stock, bay leaves, paprika, browned onions, and lemon zest.
As usual, delicious braising aromas wafted throughout the house and I couldn't wait to try the lamb. The meat was so tender. It easily fell off the bone.
The reduced sauce with lemon and kalamata stirred in was delicious. Citrusy, briny, tomato-y - this is my favorite lamb braise so far. In fact, it is the only one that we have flagged as "make again." All the others were good, but... This one is a definite make again. Even better than the braise with pancetta.
A delicious dinner to kick off 2015.

Recipe here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower

We're trying to get back to eating healthier dinners and smaller portions. Between our return from Christmas in GA and New Year's in Pittsburgh, we decided to have crab cakes and Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower for three weeknight dinners.

I've never been a huge fan of raw cauliflower or boiled cauliflower, the cauliflowers of my youth. But roasted cauliflower is another story. It's delicious. We usually make Lemon-Mustard Butter Roasted Cauliflower but feel a little guilty about the butter. This time, we decided to try olive oil, onion, thyme, and parmesan. The cauliflower gets very browned, almost black, and when we took it out, it was smoking! It's possible it blackened/smoked because we forgot to "toss occasionally" since we were making and frying the crab cakes while the cauliflower roasted. The onion also gets dark and adds a terrific flavor to the cauliflower. I couldn't really taste the thyme, but the fresh thyme we used is the thyme that we're trying to keep alive in the dining room and it might be a little... sad? Lacking in flavor? Brown, not green? Barely hanging on? We omitted the garlic & salt but added lots of pepper and just enough parmesan to give a hint of that cheesy flavor.

Definitely a make again version of cauliflower.

Recipe here.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Friday Thoughts

1. I've missed the last 2 Thursday Thoughts. Too busy with holiday stuff! So here's a Friday Thoughts.

2. Things are back to normal. The holiday decorations are packed away until next Black Friday (our usual holiday decorating day). SP is back at work. We're planning what to cook on Sunday that will give us leftovers for 3 dinners during the week. It's really nice to be back to the usual.

3. On New Year's Eve, we had a "date day." One of those days with no chores, no errands, just fun. We started with lunch at Cheesecake Factory, chosen because we still had gift cards to use and because we figured it wouldn't be as crowded as usual. We were right. We had a great server, tasty food, leftovers for another 1-2 meals, and brought home cheesecake for dessert.

Then we went to see The Imitation Game. Excellent movie.

We weren't going to go out for dinner, but Burgatory had tweeted that their shake of the day was strawberry, champagne, and almond pizzelles. That is the shake that started it all for me. New Year's Eve 2011 I went to Burgatory for the first time, the one at Waterworks, and had that same shake special. OK, maybe the pizzelles weren't almond, but it was that same basic combination. It is still my favorite shake ever and I could not pass up the chance to enjoy it again. It was just as good as I remembered. We shared one and we easily finished it (usually we struggle to finish a shake and leave some behind). We also shared an appetizer of fries with gravy, braised meat, and cheese curds and we shared a chicken sandwich with bacon jam.

Then we went home, put on sweats, and watched several OINTB episodes.

4. Sadly, I had to return The Paying Guests to the library without reading it. December was just so busy. I took it to GA, thinking I'd read in the car, in the hotel, at my brother's place, but nope. Too busy or too tired. I'll have to reserve it again.

I have 3 other books stacked up: Station Eleven, Gray Mountain, and Unbroken.

5. Yes. I still have those National Geographics to read. Yes. They will be 2 years old.

6. Happy New Year! Maybe my 2015 resolution should be to read those National Geographic magazines before 2016?