Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I somehow got through several years of honors English classes in high school and a Bachelor's degree program in English without reading Jane Eyre.  I recently read it for the first time and am so glad I did.

If you dislike classics due to the formal, stuffier language that was de rigeur, you won't like Jane Eyre.  But if you can parse the more complicated text - and I assure you, it's not too much in this one - you'll find yourself wrapped up in this story of love lost and found, with a bit of crazy mixed in, too.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, the titular protagonist is an orphaned ward of her Aunt Reed, who, in the typical "evil stepmother" (in this case, step-aunt) fashion, can never love Jane as she does her own children.  Jane is maltreated and, as a spirited, animated child, has a difficult time biting her tongue against her abuses.  Aunt Reed sends her away to Lowood School, a religious boarding school for orphans and the poor.  Jane remains there as a student and later a teacher until age eighteen, when she advertises for a governess post, and receives employment at Thornfield Hall.

Mr Rochester is Master of Thornfield, and the way the romance between he and Jane unravels was positively swoon-worthy to me.  This is not a Harlequin bodice-ripper; Bronte was writing, after all, in the nineteenth century.  But the slow-building, tantalizingly drawn-out flirtation between the two was almost too much for me; I adored it.  So imagine my dismay when, towards the end of the middle of the book, the wedding between Jane and Rochester was not to be, and Jane dashes off in the early morning, presumably never to return to Thornfield.

Having read my share of literature by Bronte's contemporaries, I was shocked and delighted that in the end, Jane and Rochester are reunited, marry, and are deliriously happy together.  This was exactly as I'd hoped the book would end, and it did.

Aside from a happy ending, I also loved the character of Jane.  Forgive me if I'm restating the obvious that critics and writers more talented than myself have already concluded, but Jane is such an unusual character for the times for her outspokenness and willingness to follow her emotions rather than do what is societally expected of her.  There were points in the book in which I wanted to throw it across the room shouting, "Damn society, Jane!  Do what you feel is right for you!"  I nearly gave up on the text, feeling certain it would be another bleak, Victorian downer. 

I've probably given away the best of the plot now (though I did save a wonderful, surprising little nugget to be discovered!), but if you haven't read Jane Eyre, do.  It's really a classic worthy of the name.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 17

That flirty little hint of filling is trying to seduce you.  I wish I could go back to summer tomatoes so I could make this right now.  This was divine.

Mr. Hungry and I do not possess green thumbs.  We sometimes try to grow tomatoes, but the efforts are usually not rewarded with a bumper crop.  So this summer we relied on my parents' phenomenal vegetable garden to keep us in delicious tomato supply.

Being a household of two can be a challenge when you have pounds and pounds of tomatoes to use.  I'm not fond of tomato sauce, so wasting the gorgeous, juicy, red tomatoes of late summer on sauce seemed a tragedy to me.  I needed something that would highlight them in all of their lusciousness.  Having recently discovered my love of pie crust, I decided a tomato pie would be just the thing.

I worked without a recipe, other than the one for the pie crust.  I prefer to use all butter in mine, but you could certainly use your fat of choice - shortening, lard, margarine - whatever makes you happy.  I chopped the tomatoes but left skin and seeds intact.  I mixed them with salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and left the mixture to sit while I rolled out the pie crust.  To the bottom crust, I spread the barest hint of mayonnaise.  My reasons for this were twofold: for one, I wanted to ensure an unsoggy crust, and two, I love tomatoes with mayonnaise.  I then tumbled the tomatoes into the pie plate, tossed in some chiffonaded basil - this, I managed to grow all summer! - and topped it off with another pie crust.  I sliced a few vents, sprinkled a little more cheese on top, and baked it for about 40 minutes.
 I did experience some pie crust-shrinkage, but I was still rather pleased with the way this beauty came out of the oven.

This was every bit as good as you might be imagining, and then some.  I know what I'll be doing with my first batch of tomatoes next summer.

Meatless Month: Day 16

This was butternut squash risotto.  It was time-consuming and the process had many steps.  And I was in a hurry to get to Bingo with a friend.  Yes, Bingo.  I am always one of the youngest people there, but it's fun, and there's a chance to win lots of money.

Back to the risotto.  The first thing I did was hack up a butternut squash - dang, are those suckers hard! - then seasoned the cubes with olive oil, salt, and pepper on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven to roast for a while.

While the squash was roasting, I decided to caramelize some onions.  Mr. Hungry is a tough-sell on butternut squash, but loves onions, so I thought by combining something he loves - caramelized onions - with something he's not certain about - butternut squash - I'd be more likely to have a happy eater.  Caramelizing onions always takes way longer than any recipe ever says they will (and I wasn't working from a recipe this time), but here they are in all their sugary glory:

Aren't they lovely?

Risotto really isn't difficult to make, but it is a process.  I heated up some vegetable broth in a saucepan and in a separate pan sauteed some garlic, the arborio rice, and then deglazed with some white wine.  At that point, the risotto process was ready to begin.  Ladles of broth mix with the rice, stir and stir until the liquid is absorbed, and repeat for about twenty minutes.

When my rice was tender and had absorbed most of the broth, I added the cooked squash cubes and a generous grating of Romano cheese, some dry sage, and a bit more salt and pepper, too.  I dished it up onto plates and topped it all with some caramelized onions.

Please excuse the terrible quality of this photo.  Even with the awful lighting here, you can see it looks like risotto should.  But it was lacking...something.  I couldn't quite figure out what it was.  Maybe I should have pureed the squash?  Added browned butter?  I'm not sure, but this was a really mediocre meal that wasn't worth all the work it took.  To end on a positive note, Mr. Hungry actually sort of liked the squash.  Small victories are all I can ask for.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 15

Falafel is a family favorite in the Hungry Household.  I don't make mine from scratch, though I'd like to try some time.  If you ever find yourself at the newer, Central Avenue Price Chopper with the large Kosher foods section, try the falafel mix by Osem.  It's really good.  Anyway, to make falafel from a mix, all you need to do is add water, form into balls or patties (I prefer the latter because it stays in the pita better), and fry in vegetable oil.

If you're unfamiliar with falafel, it's a patty made of ground-up chickpeas and sometimes fava beans and is a common food in Middle Eastern cultures.  We ate ours in a pita with hummus - my favorite is the Sabra brand in any variety.  My friend, the hummus snob, says this is the only kind that tastes as hummus should.

Served alongside the falafel pockets was a homemade tabbouleh salad, which is bulgur wheat mixed with chopped fresh parsley, mint, tomatoes, and lemon juice.  It's served cold or room temperature and is a light, refreshing side dish that's pretty good for you, too.  I made a little tomato-cucumber salad, dressed lightly with vinegar, salt, and pepper, out of the awesome tomatoes from my parents' garden, and dinner was done.

This is a meal that's far too easy to stuff yourself silly with falafel goodness.  If you've never tried falafel, you should!  Unless you don't like fried, crispy, deliciousness.  In which case, you're nuts!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 14

I love minestrone.  I love lentils.  So when I found a recipe for lentil minestrone, I knew I had to make it.  I found the recipe in Deborah Madison's very thorough tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

The recipe wasn't all that different from my usual minestrone.  It started with celery, onions, and carrots, gently sauteed to soften, then garlic and aromatics in the form of parsley, bay leaf, and thyme are added to the soup pot.  I added vegetable broth and the lentils and let it cook for about 20 minutes, until the lentils were sort, added some chopped kale, and cooked a small batch of ditalini in a separate pot to be added to each individual bowl of soup, which was then topped with some grated Romano cheese.

The recipe also called for something called mushroom soy sauce, which I am not familiar with, but a quick Google search tells me that it's a good vegetarian substitute for oyster sauce.

The verdict?  I prefer my usual lentil soup recipe for when I feel like lentils, and my usual, chock-full-of-vegetables minestrone when I feel like minestrone.  This was simply ok, nothing special.  For a more detailed write-up than my sad little post, check out this blog.  She has the exact recipe, too, and likes the soup far more than I did.  With all the wonderful soups I've made, I don't think I'll be repeating this recipe.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I've fallen woefully behind in updating on my Meatless Month Challenge, but it's now finished and I'm trying to catch up with my posts.  The rest of the month's meatless meals, as well as other food posts, are forthcoming.  But now I'd like to tell you about Sarah Water's book, The Little Stranger.

There was a considerable amount of buzz about this book, particularly in the author's native England, when it was published due to its consideration for the Man Booker prize.  I just finished reading it this afternoon and it's the kind of book which, as soon as you've finished reading it, you feel you simply must discuss it with someone.

Dr Faraday, a family doctor in Post World War II rural England, is called out to Hundreds Hall one day to examine the Ayres' family servant, a young girl named Betty.  The doctor suspects there is little wrong with Betty, save a touch of homesickness, but she confides in him that the house spooks her.

Following this episode with Betty, Dr Faraday befriends the Ayres family and enmeshes himself into their lives as their estate falls to disrepair and some troubling and strange occurrences continue happening to the family.

**Spoiler alert!  Read no further if you don't want to be spoiled!**

Waters' writing evokes the era in which it was written and she creates the bleak, rationed Post-War life in which England's traditional class structure was breaking down.  The book is eerie, spooky, and difficult to put down.  The ending seems ambiguous at first - is there truly a ghost or ghosts haunting Hundreds Hall?  Is it a poltergeist, as Dr Seeley suggests?  If so, who is responsible for the poltergeist's activities?  Is there an Ayres family curse? 

The more I think about the book and read other (probably more astute) blogs that have posts on The Little Stranger, the more strongly I am led to believe that it is Dr Faraday himself who is behind the family troubles and tragedies.  Beginning with his theft of the little acorn he prised from the wall as a child, he has longed to be a part of Hundreds Hall.  As his relationship with the family grows, he becomes obsessed with the idea of having Hundreds as his own.  Exactly how he "made" things happen, or whether he's fully responsible for Mrs Ayres' haunting, the smudges in the rooms, or the 'Sss' on the walls, I'm not certain.  But there's no doubt in my mind that Faraday, whether in physical person or just in malevolent spirit, caused the death of Caroline.

I also wonder: did the family feel as fondly for Faraday as he thought?  It's difficult to say, as the story is told from his perspective.  As he proves himself to be an unreliable narrator as the book progresses, I'm thinking he sees them as he'd like to be, a part of the family, rather than as they see him - a nice enough, probably lonely fellow.

I very rarely reread fiction books, but I just might with this one.  If you've read it, please add some of your own thoughts.  The Little Stranger is a book that begs for good discussion.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 13

I didn't bother taking a photo of tonight's meal because it just wasn't that interesting to look at.  I had planned on making eggplant caponata with pasta for dinner, using the leftover whole eggplant I didn't use when making the eggplant Parmesan, but while cooking, I burnt it, and then even the unburnt parts didn't taste so great, so I gave up on the caponata, something I rarely do.  I don't think there was any fixing it, though.  It was just too vinegary and tart and just not good.  I can't remember where I got the recipe.

So I had half of a butternut squash left in the fridge and decided to make a butternut squash pasta sauce.  I softened the squash in the microwave, scooped it out of its skin, put it in a pot with some half-and-half, and pureed it with my immersion blender.  I added a bit of salt and some sage and put it on the stove to warm through while the rigatoni cooked.  I added a pat of butter, a little pasta cooking water, and some Romano cheese, mixed in the pasta, and dinner was ready.

It was just fine.  We ate it, Mr. Hungry even liked it - and he usually doesn't care for squash at all - but it was nothing special.  Still, there is satisfaction in getting a meal on the table that required no shopping and used up odds and ends in the kitchen.  Better luck tomorrow.

Meatless Month: Day 12

We were on our way to see Machete at Crossgates Mall last night and only had about an hour.  Mr. Hungry didn't feel like Chipotle or pizza, so we were planning on going to the Metro 20 Diner right on Western Avenue.  It's not the greatest diner around, but it would be fast and would most certainly have some vegetarian options.  I pulled into their parking lot only to discover they were closed for renovations, so I drove a bit further west on route 20 to the Western Diner, which neither the Mr. nor I had ever been.

Stepping into the Western Diner is like stepping straight into the 70s, right down to the music playing.  Wood paneling and amber-glassed lamp shades decorated the dining room.  We were promptly brought tiny glasses of water and a basket of potato rolls.  I decided to try their eggplant Parmesan, being fondly reminiscent of the batch I recently made, and Mr. Hungry ordered the stuffed shells.  I had thought about getting breakfast, and maybe I should have.

Dinner started with a choice of soup or salad, and I opted for the cream of broccoli soup.  Why, I don't know, as I don't generally like diner creamy soups, particularly cream of broccoli.  The broccoli is always cooked to a grayish mush and the soup itself is inevitably overthick, but it was fine.  Exactly as I expected it would be.  It very well may have had some form of animal broth in it, but we're not being that fussy about our "veg month," as Mr. Hungry has taken to calling it.

Our entrees arrived shortly after ordering and were both swimming in marinara sauce.  I am not a lover of any tomato sauce in the best of circumstances, and unfortunately, the Western Diner's wasn't great.  Too sweet, too thick, and just not delicious.  But my eggplant was crispy and the mozzarella topping was browned, so despite the over cooked spaghetti the meal was adequate.  Mr. Hungry's stuffed shells were so sauce laden that he scooped them out of their little serving dish onto a spare plate.  He said they were fine.

The theme for this meal would be adequate, and inexpensive at just under $30 including tax and tip.  I know not every meal has to be memorable, but I hate spending money on food that isn't really worth eating.  I don't think we'll be returning to the Western Diner anytime soon.

Meatless Month: Day 11

I must confess: I cheated on Meatless Month tonight.  I went to the New World Bistro Bar with some girl friends and ordered a trout special that sounded simply too good to pass up.  I'm not sorry, either.

We started our meal with the cheese of the day, which was a triple cream goat cheese from Nettle Meadow Farm in Warrensburg, which was served with crostini and fig jam.  I thought this was an enjoyable little nibble to eat alongside my pint of Brooklyn Pennant Ale.  My friends also ordered the chicken liver paté off of the "Forbidden Pleasures" section of the menu.  And here's another confession from me: while I typically like paté, this had truffles (or truffle oil?) in it, and I find the smell of truffles to be almost unbearable.  I thought I had a broad palate, but the allure of truffles is just lost on me.

The trout was described as cumin-dusted and served atop cheddar-jalapeno bread pudding.  There were a few bones in my trout, but aside from that, this was a delicious dinner and my friends had a bit of plate envy.  We also had dessert.  I had a lime tart, which was a massive serving, complete with a dollop of softly whipped cream.  It was tart and cool and refreshing, but I couldn't finish it.

I've been to New World Bistro Bar several times now and always enjoy my food, but I always feel like the food is always maybe a half step away from being exactly how I'd want it.  Nevertheless, the creative combinations and commitment to supporting local farms and food vendors keeps bringing me back.

Meatless Month: Day 10

Mr. Hungry and I go to our friends' house every other Thursday night for Game Night, during which we play any of a number of different board games.  We take turns cooking dinner, or sometimes we get takeout.  This past Game Night it was my friend N's turn to cook.  I always look forward to the nights she cooks as I know she'll make something delicious.

Knowing about our Meatless Month, she cooked kitchri, an Iraqi lentil and rice dish made using red lentils, cumin, onions, tomato paste, and garlic.  It's all cooked together, then topped with sour cream and a salad of onions, bell pepper, cucumber, and tomato.  It was delicious and tasted strangely like tacos.  I guess maybe it was the cumin.  It was very filling and very tasty, and despite Game Night being cut short thanks to Benadryl, it was a good night.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 9

Day 9 was the first real miss so far of Meatless Month.  I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later.  I'm frankly surprised that this dish was the one Mr. Hungry didn't like, as on paper it sounded right up his alley.

I used a recipe from Everyday Food magazine for Baked Eggs and Tortillas in Creamy Tomato Sauce.  I've had good luck with their recipes and appreciate that they're typically quick to make without seeming dumbed down or relying on packaged products much.

You start by making a simple tomato sauce of onions, garlic, and crushed tomatoes.  I only had diced tomatoes, so I used those plus a small can of Spanish style tomato sauce.  I probably should have just blended the diced tomatoes with my immersion blender as it was a bit too saucy in the end.

You then add a bit of half-and-half, layer it in a baking dish, top with some corn tortilla strips, and more sauce.  Crack a few eggs on top,

(Isn't that a happy looking dish?), coat with cheese,

and bake.  After a half hour in the oven, it looked like this:

It was just fine, I thought.  Hearty, tomatoey, slightly spicy, cheesy and gooey.  I don't know if they were supposed to or if my tortillas were just a bit old, but they dissolved into nothingness in the oven and simply thickened the sauce.  So I liked it, Mr. Hungry did not.  I probably won't be making this again, though I still find the idea of baked eggs very appealing.  I'll keep my eyes peeled for another recipe.

Meatless Month: Day 8

 The Hungry Household loves falafel.  When I proposed the idea of Meatless Month to Mr. Hungry his first question was whether we could have falafel for dinner.  I don't make my falafel from scratch, but I think I will try it some day.  I did drive to the Kosher Chopper (the big, new Price Chopper on Central Avenue in Colonie near Big Lots) to get the Israeli brand of falafel mix, which my Israeli friend tells me is better than Fantastic brand.

Unfortunately, I got to Chopper and they had two different Israeli brands of falafel mix in their Kosher foods section - Telma and Osem - and I couldn't remember which was the good one.  I bought Telma, only be told later I should have gotten Osem.  Oh well.  The falafel was delicious anyway.

I like to form my falafel into patties rather than balls as I think they're easier to eat that way.  I fried them in some vegetable oil until they were nice and crispy golden-brown.  Alongside the falafel I served tabbouleh salad, which is really easy to make and is a light, healthy side dish.  You cook some bulgar wheat and add chopped tomatoes and lots of parsley, plus lemon juice and garlic.  I also chopped up a tomato and a cucumber and dressed them with salt, pepper, and rice wine vinegar.  I toasted some pita (we've found that Thomas' Sahara brand are the best, oddly enough), got the hummus (Sabra is our favorite) out of the refrigerator, and we were ready for falafel night.  Falafel night may just replace taco night in our hearts.  Yum!

Meatless Month: Day 7

Hello, squash.  Half of this butternut squash featured prominently in last Monday's dinner.  I decided, rather ambitiously, to make a risotto with roasted butternut squash and caramelized onions.  I've made risotto before, and caramelized onions, but I didn't really have any sort of recipe for this. 

I started by getting my onions cooking, as in my experience caramelizing them takes quite a long time.  Here's my beauties after cooking for a while.  No seasoning added yet, just onions and a bit of oil.  Aren't they pretty?

While these were cooking, I also started the squash roasting in the oven.  Again, minimal seasoning here - just some oil, salt, pepper, and dried sage that I crushed a bit between my fingers.  Here's my cubed squash, about to go in the oven:

 I love the vibrant, autumnally orange shade of butternut squash.

The risotto was pretty basic.  I made a quick, simple vegetable broth using water, an onion, a carrot, and some celery, plus peppercorns, salt, and bay leaves, and used this as my risotto liquid.  I started with some garlic, deglazed with a bit of white wine, and then did the typical rice, liquid, stir, stir, stir! that is risotto-making.  When the grains of arborio had soaked up as much broth as they could take, I stirred in some Romano cheese, a little butter, and added the squash and onions.

It doesn't make for the prettiest picture, but I did my best to make it look appetizing.

This meal was more steps than a typical dinner in the Hungry household, and I wish I could say it was worth it, but it fell a bit short.  I think if the broth had been a bit more aggressively seasoned the final dish would have been infinitely better.  I will say that it tasted better for lunch the next day, and Mr. Hungry - a former butternut squash hater - enjoyed this very much.  There is little he won't eat if caramelized onions are involved. 

I've only made risotto a handful of times, but it's really not difficult to do or to cook the rice completely.  So why is it I've had it in several restaurants and it's often either not done all the way, or gummy, or just plain bad?  If I can do it, why can't chefs? 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 6

Sunday evening Mr. Hungry and I went out to Blue Spice in Delmar for another friend's birthday.  It is located right on Delaware Avenue, across from the Hannaford plaza (be sure to park in the lot behind, not out front).  We'd been here a few times before and really enjoyed it, and I knew there were plenty of vegetarian options, so ordering would be easy.

We were very hungry when we arrived, so we ordered appetizers.  I went for the veggie spring rolls and Mr. Hungry got the fresh basil rolls.  The veggie spring rolls are like a skinnier cousin of Chinese style egg rolls.  Crispy and fried, they were filled with cabbage and other vegetables and served with a squiggle of what tasted like sweet chili sauce.  They were good, not great, but took the edge off my hunger while we waited for a few latecomers to arrive.  The fresh basil rolls are closer to the summer rolls at a Vietnamese restaurant.  They're made of rice paper wrappers, which are translucent and have a bit of a stretchy, rubbery texture.  I wasn't so fond of these as Thai basil is quite licoricey tasting, and I don't care for licorice, though the honey-tamarind sauce they were served with was very good.  I'm a sucker for tamarind.

I nearly always order a curry when at a Thai restaurant.  The most difficult part is deciding which curry to get.  Blue Spice offers a number of different curries, served with your choice of vegetables, fried tofu, chicken, shrimp, scallops, duck, pork, or beef, for slightly varying prices.  I've had scallops here in the past and they were large, of good quality, and cooked correctly so that they weren't raw, but weren't overdone and awful, either.

This time I chose the green curry noodles with fried tofu.  The green curry is described on the menu as a special occasion, coconut milk based curry.  It's about medium spicy by default and is served with zucchini, peas, red peppers, and green beans.  It was really delicious and quite a large serving for $12.  I brought home half for lunch the next day and it was just as good.  I'm not always a big tofu lover, but this was great - coated/breaded (not sure what exactly they do to it, but it's got a coating) for a chewy-crisp exterior, with a soft and velvety interior.  The coconut milk lends a smooth, slight sweetness to the curry sauce that took some of the bite from the heat away, and overall, it was just really good.  The noodles in this equation were linguine, which tasted good, but I don't know how authentic it is.  I'll admit to a very limited knowledge of Thai cuisine.  Maybe they do eat linguine?  Anyway, I'll be getting the green curry again for sure.

Service here is very accommodating and pleasant.  I don't need my waiter or waitress to be my friend, but it's nice when they seem happy to serve you, and here they really do.  It can be a bit on the slower side, but it's well within my range of acceptable.  Our waitress also picked up on the fact that it was my friend's birthday despite none of us mentioning it, and the staff sang to her and gave her a free fried ice cream, which was coated in a fresh raspberry sauce that my friends said was delicious.

If you haven't tried Blue Spice, do.  The food I've tried here has all been really tasty and the prices are reasonable.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 5

Again, no photos for this post, but the meal is definitely worth writing about.  We were invited over to a friend's house for a birthday cookout/dinner.  I decided to bring along some vegetarian burgers to grill, as my friend was providing lots and lots of chicken but nothing vegetarian.

I used a recipe from a friend for homemade veggie burgers and they came out better than I had imagined.  I'm not opposed to the Morningstar and Garden Burger brand frozen patties, but these were so much better, and not much more difficult to make.  Although I doubled the recipe for the party to make eight burgers, here's my recipe for a single batch, modified from my friend's directions:

Kidney Bean Burgers
1 13 oz can of red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 small onion, grated
about 1/2 cup grated cheese - I used a sharp Cheddar
1 egg
1/4-1/2 cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper
any other seasonings you like - I used Penzey's Northwoods Seasoning.  More about that later.

Place the beans in a medium sized bowl and mash them with a fork or potato masher, then add the rest of the ingredients.  Mix well and form into four patties.  If they're not sticking together well enough for you, add more breadcrumbs.  Coat the patties lightly with flour and then fry in a bit of vegetable oil, or you could grill them, which is what I did.  They came out nice and crisp on the outside and were substantial, hearty, and delicious.  I served them on toasted potato rolls and had mine with a touch of sour cream   Sour cream is not a usual condiment on my burgers, but everyone was eating baked potatoes, and it was handy, so I thought I'd try it on my burger and it was pretty good.

Note that these patties are both delicate and quite sticky.  I'd form a patty and then wrap it in waxed paper.  I actually put my patties in the freezer for about half an hour before we left, too, so they'd firm up and be easier to handle.  If you grill them, make sure you oil the grill before you put them on, as they're prone to sticking.

Penzey's probably deserves a post of its own, eventually, but I'll tell you about Northwoods seasoning.  I order a bunch of herbs and spices through Penzey's website a few times a year.  Their quality and prices are outstanding, and they always include a free 1 ounce sample jar with every order.  One of my recent orders included Northwoods seasoning, which is a blend of salt, paprika, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, garlic, and chipotle.  It was perfect in these burgers and would probably be delicious added to hamburgers, too.

Mr. Hungry really liked these burgers and said they were just as satisfying as a beef burger.  All the party guests who tried them enjoyed them, too.  Another successful meatless meal that will be added into my regular rotation.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 4

I'm sitting here with very itchy feet.  Last night was chilly and I was going to a friend's house where I knew I'd be outside, so I had on long sleeves and jeans.  But I wore sandals because I'm not quite ready to transition to shoes-and-socks-all-the-time weather.  And I'm paying the price.  Those darn mosquitoes zeroed in on the small amounts of flesh I'd left uncovered and I have numerous itchy welts to show for it.  Mosquitoes just love me.

Anyway, I'm a bit behind on my food posting.  I'll try to catch up in the next day or two lest I get too backlogged. 

After two days of eggplant Parm, it was time to move on.  Along with the abundance of beautiful and delicious tomatoes my mother had given us were two small zucchini.  I used those zucchini to make these pancakes, which I think are really more of a fritter, or at least mine were.  Call them whichever you prefer; they were very tasty.

I suspect I didn't have quite the called-for 4 cups of grated zucchini as the squash to egg ratio leaned pretty heavily towards the latter.  I used a sharp white Cheddar from Hannaford, just the store brand.  I didn't have chives, so I grated half of a white onion into the mix.  My box grater got quite the workout that night.  After I fried up all the fritters in canola oil I served them with salsa and sour cream, for no particular reason.  These cooked quickly, and I soon had a glistening, golden-brown pile of delicious zucchini cakes.

The salsa was Frontera brand - yes, Rick Bayless' Frontera.  I bought the medium salsa, which was roasted tomato and garlic flavor, and it was just ok.  I really should have known it would be this way, but I was still disappointed by the cooked tomato flavor.  I much prefer a raw, fresher tasting salsa.  Nevertheless, mixed with the sour cream it was a more than adequate condiment to dip the fritters in.

To balance out the cheesy fried goodness of the fritters we ate a big green salad.  And I promised not to fry anything else for the next few nights.  You'll hear more about those fry-free nights soon.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Meatless Month: Days 2 & 3

I called Mr. Hungry from Hannaford on Wednesday night to ask him if he had any dinner requests.  He's being a very game sport for this Meatless Month, and I'm glad.  I thought he'd be more reluctant than he was.  So when he asked me to make Eggplant Parmesan, despite having never made it before, I agreed.

Eggplant is not my favorite vegetable.  But I do like it very thinly sliced, breaded, and fried.  I've yet to discover a food that doesn't benefit from this treatment.  How many eggplants does it take to feed two people?  I really didn't know, so I bought two locally grown ones that were on the small side, but ended up only using one.

I didn't quite realize what I had gotten myself into.  Eggplant Parmesan is a labor intensive dish.  I sliced and salted the eggplant to drain some of the water off as I've heard this helps them fry and lessens bitterness.  I don't know if either of these things are true, but there was quite a bit of water in the bowl after they drained for a half hour.  I then did a flour dredge, dipped the slices in beaten egg, and then coated them in a breadcrumb, Parmesan, panko mix and put the slices in hot vegetable oil.

I had a half dozen big tomatoes from my parents' garden that needed to be used soon, so I diced them and added them to a saucepan with some olive oil and a minced clove of garlic and let it gently simmer while the eggplant fried.  Later I tossed in some homegrown basil to finish it.

So once all the eggplant was fried and excess oil was blotted, I layered the sauce, then the eggplant in a baking dish and topped the whole deal with slices of fresh mozzarella.  I love the ultra whiteness and soft texture of fresh mozzarella, and it seemed a good partner to eggplant to me.  Everything baked for about a half hour - just until the cheese melted.  Alongside the eggplant we had spaghetti and a green salad.

This looks quite greasy in the photo, but I can assure you it didn't seem overly so.  Here's the whole giant pan of eggplant after baking.  Please ignore the various items behind the baking dish:

I didn't follow any recipe, but this turned out so delicious, and as you can see, one eggplant made a lot of food.  We had this for dinner last night as well, with a fresh batch of spaghetti.  This is a definite make-again dish, meatless month or otherwise. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meatless Month: Day 1

Before I get into what I ate today, a brief note about photos.  I don't really like taking photos, and I often forget to do so.  While my favorite blogs typically have lots of photos, I'm afraid mine just won't.  And my camera seems always to need charging.  I hope you enjoy the writing nonetheless.

Today was the first day of the self-imposed Meatless Month, and it was an easy day.  Oatmeal for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch.  Neither of these meals is typically all that interesting for me.

Dinner was delicious, easy, and rather attractive.  I do wish I'd remembered to photograph it.  It was also really inexpensive to make.  I made rigatoni with oven roasted grape tomatoes, basil, and Parmesan cheese.  The tomatoes were from my parents' garden, so they were free, and the basil was from my own little plant.  I tossed the tomatoes with olive oil, salt, and pepper and put them in a 400 degree oven while the rigatoni cooked.  When that was done, tomatoes and pasta were tossed, basil and Parmesan added, and dinner was done.  We had a mixed greens salad with strawberries on the side and some little biscuits from the Fresh Market, too.

Mr. Hungry and I had dinner at my parents' on Monday and I grabbed a pack of the Fresh Market's cheddar tea biscuits on my way.  They're maybe 1/4 the size of a regular biscuit.  We forgot to eat them with dinner on Monday, so I brought a few home.  They were really good, and very cute.  I suspect they'd be really tasty with a bit of apple jelly or peach preserves.  Another bread/bakery product worth buying from the Fresh Market.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meatless for a Month

Mr. Hungry and I are going to try our best to eat meatless for a month, starting tomorrow, September 7th.  There are a few reasons for this.  For one thing, I wanted to challenge myself as a cook.  I know I can create pretty good meals using meat, but I'm less skilled at cooking vegetable and vegetarian dishes creatively.  Secondly, Mr. Hungry and I should probably be eating more vegetables than we do.  And Mr. Hungry doesn't always like vegetables.  So this is a good way to try to introduce him to some new ones that he'll hopefully enjoy.

Breakfast, I'm expecting, will be easy.  Dinner shouldn't be too bad.  Lunch will be the hardest, at least for my husband, as he's a big sandwich eater.  I checked out Deborah Madison's bible of vegetarian cooking from the library, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and am armed with some recipes from elsewhere, too.  Tonight, one last barbecue.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Garden Bistro 24

Last night Mr. Hungry and I went out to the new restaurant, Garden Bistro 24 in Colonie.  It's located on Central Avenue in the plaza where Super Video used to be, but is a new building, I believe (remember Super Video?  I miss it.)  Buzz on local food blog, Table Hopping, had been immensely positive, and I was intrigued by the promise of a concise, focused menu and reasonable prices.

We made reservations for 8:00, but when we got there, though it was busy, we could see that we would have gotten a table regardless.  Still, if you're planning on going more along prime dinner hours (6:00-7:00 or so around here), you might want to call ahead.  The restaurant is decorated in tones of gold and burgundy, with touches here and there that give nods to France - fleur de lis and Eiffel tower sorts of things. 

To your right you'll see a large board containing the night's specials, including prices.  We were seated almost immediately and handed the regular menu, the wine menu, and the specials menu, including beer specials on the back.  Beer-lovers take note: all four (or was it five?) beer specials were local, including Saratoga Ale and Cooperstown's Hennepin.  I opted to stick with water last night, but it was nice to see local beers.

As plates piled high with golden frites whizzed by, I knew there was really no thinking to do.  I must order something that gives me those frites, I thought to myself.  I opted for the Flat Iron Steak Frites ($11) while Mr. Hungry, also feeling beefy, went with the other option, the Hangar Steak Frites ($12).  I also ordered a small house salad with their citrus vinaigrette and received a good-sized bowl of mixed greens, ripe tomato (it was red!), cucumber, carrot, regrettably, raw red onion (I'll have to remember to ask for that to be held, next time), and micro greens.  The salad was well-dressed, not over-dressed, and the dressing was tart and garlicky.  I'd never had micro greens before, that I could recall, and I didn't notice huge flavor, but they looked nice, and I imagine they're pretty good for me, too.  Mr. Hungry started with French onion soup ($6) and received the standard, cheese-encrusted crock.  I took a little sip of his broth and found it to be rich and flavorful, and pretty much exactly as you'd want a French onion broth to taste.

Our steaks arrived shortly thereafter.  I'd gotten mine topped with herb butter while Mr. Hungry was Mr. Greedy and asked for caramelized onions as well as blue cheese.  I tasted both steaks and can appreciate both.  The hangar steak has a really beefy flavor and meaty chewiness to it that I find really satisfying, but the flat iron is tender and juicier.  While the herb butter was good, I think next time I'd have to top my steak with those onions the Mr. had.  Deeply tan and meltingly soft, they would make anything taste emminently better.  The frites were very thin, almost shoestring style, with skins on and were pretty well-done.  I prefer my fries a bit thicker so there's more of a potato flavor, but these were good.  They reminded me a bit of the canned Potato Stix snack, but in a good way.  My only other small complaint is that I thought both fries and steak could use a touch more salt, but it didn't bother me so much that I felt I needed to ask our waitress for the salt shaker that was strangely missing from our table (present on all the rest).

The serving size was adequate and filling, but it was one meal's worth of food.  That is not at all a complaint - I like receiving smaller portions, and this is really not food you want to take home to reheat.  So we had dessert!  I had a good cup of coffee ($2, and locally roasted, per the menu, though from where, I don't know) and the housemade almond cake ($4), said to be glazed with apricot preserves and topped with toasted almonds.  I was presented with a small, round cakelet topped with whipped cream and a blackberry - I wish I'd had my camera as it was really cute.  The taste was mouth-fillingly almondy, sweet, and just the slightest bit dry.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Mr. Hungry went with the pineapple upside-down cake ($4), which is one of his favorites but is rarely seen on menus.  It, too, was a small, round cake and was moist and sweet, topped with the classic caramelized pineapple.

After having abysmally slow and negligent service at another restaurant recently, the service at Garden Bistro was a breath of fresh air.  They took a team approach, which I nearly always prefer, and they seemed genuinely happy to be working there.  The waitresses we spoke with were knowledgeable about the menu and just all around pleasant.  We got refills promptly, and save one silly gaffe - our waitress asked if we wanted dessert before we'd eaten our entrees! - I have no complaints.  The restaurant was spotlessly clean, including the bathrooms and the glimpse into the kitchen I got on my way to the bathroom, part of which I'm sure is due to being new, but it is still promising to see.

Will we go back?  Certainly.  There was a delicious sounding crepe special last night, stuffed with spinach, caramelized onions, roast chicken, and chevre ($11) as well as a swordfish special that tempted me ($17).  I would also love to go with a mussels lover as the bowls going past, piled with shiny black shellfish, looked and smelled wonderful, but I'm not certain I like mussels, having not eaten them in years and not liking them previously, and while I'm game to try new things, I don't want to order a bowl for my dinner only to hate them.  Mr. Hungry doesn't eat any fish or shellfish, so he's no help in that department.

Garden Bistro 24 is exactly the neighborhood kind of place that this area needed.  The food was very good, with reasonable portions and prices, and most importantly, we left feeling better - happier, mellower, sated - than we had when we came in, all for under $50, before tip.  I don't know if it was the food, service, atmosphere, or combination of the three, but I can't remember the last time I left a restaurant with a greater sense of well-being.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An Old Favorite

The above picture may not look like much, but it's one of my favorite things to eat.  It's a combination of plain yogurt, something for sweetness, and Mu Mu Muesli.  In this picture you'll see pieces of fresh nectarine.  They were so sweet and juicy, I didn't add any other sweeteners, but often I'll add maple syrup or fruit preserves instead.  My preferred yogurt is Brown Cow plain low fat.  Stonyfield will also do, but its flavor isn't as rich.

I first tasted Mu Mu Muesli when I was handed a little paper cup containing it and some whole milk maple yogurt at the Schenectady Greenmarket.  I was sold.  It is available to purchase there, but I take a big refillable container and get it in bulk at the Honest Weight Co-Op.  For those uninitiated, muesli is pretty much untoasted granola.  This particular brand combines oats, flax seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, unsweetened dried coconut, almonds, and the best part, dried dates.  It's lightly sweet, crunchy, chewy, nutty, and makes for a filling breakfast or a healthy snack.  I've even been known to eat it twice in a day.  As someone who doesn't often eat the same thing twice, this is high praise indeed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


After a visit to the Farmer's Market at the Crossings a few weeks ago, I was inspired to try my hand at making fruit pies. 

I grew up with a mom who baked like a fiend, and I watched her roll out pie dough countless times as a child.  Yet for some reason, making pie crust seemed like it should be something really difficult.  It wasn't.  I used a modified recipe I found at Hillbilly Housewife, substituting dairy-free margarine for the shortening.  I wouldn't normally bake with margarine, but I was going to be sharing the pie with a friend who needed it to be so.  I also discovered I was nearly out of all-purpose flour, so I ended up subbing whole wheat flour for half of the recipe.

The crust came out just fine, though it wasn't as flaky as I'd hoped, but it rolled nicely and tasted ok.  The filling, however, was gorgeous.  If you needed a reason to be convinced that farmer's markets are worth shopping at, summer fruit is the reason.  I bought juicy, sweet peaches from George Markets in Latham (I think! - I should have written it down) and a reasonably priced quart of blackberries from the vendor at the back of the first row towards the back near the playground - helpful, isn't it?  These blackberries put those blackberry shaped things the supermarket sells to shame.  I payed $5 for a quart of really delicious, sweet, flavorful blackberries and they were worth every cent.

I blanched the peaches and then peeled them, sliced, and added to a mixing bowl with the blackberries.  A cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of flour, and a sprinkling of cinnamon, and the filling was complete.  Here's how it looked once added to the crust, before it received its dough hat.

Ah!  A thing of beauty!

Once the top crust was on, I brushed it with an egg wash, pricked a pretty (off-center) design in the top, and sprinkled it with Sugar in the Raw for sweetness and crunch and put the whole thing in the oven.  Here it is before baking:

Mmm, pie. 

The question that sets fear in the pie-baker's heart is one that can only be answered by slicing into it: will the filling have set?  I don't like the texture cornstarch adds, so I put my faith in flour.  And the results...

Delicious, and not too runny at all.

I highly recommend peach-blackberry pie, but even better, if you can believe it, was a peach-strawberry pie I made the following weekend.

Method was largely the same, except my pie crust was made with butter this time.  Oh, what a difference the fat makes!  This pie crust, while handling, was supple, pleasantly elastic, yet silky and tender.  It was really a pleasure to work with.  I also purchased more all purpose flour, so I didn't use any whole wheat this time around.  The resultant crust was golden, crisp, and so very tasty.

The only change to the filling was strawberries in place of blackberries, and I think I preferred it that way.  Either way, you can't lose.  I'm only sorry I didn't take a picture of the peach-strawberry pie.

If you've been afraid to try your hand at pie crust in the past, don't be!  It's very easy, and in the end, you have pie!  What could be better?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman, was a very well-written book, but ultimately, was not for me.  It came highly recommended by several friends, but I am just not a big historical fiction reader and should have known better.  It took me a very long time to finish and in the end, I'm not certain it was worth my time to slog through.

In 19th century England, Gustine is an impoverished young mother, indentured to her landlord Whilky Robinson as his "dress lodger" - she wears an elegant gown of his and works as a prostitute, with the idea that the gown brings a higher class of clientele and with it, higher profits.  When the opportunity presents itself for her to provide much needed medical care for her son, she grabs it, even though it means procuring corpses for a local surgeon upon which to practice operating.  All of this is set among the backdrop of a devastating outbreak of cholera morbus.

The book is cleverly narrated, and shifts between perspectives adeptly.  It winds through several lives, though of course, focuses mainly on the titular dress lodger.  It is a bleak, sad book that has drawn comparisons to Dickens in tone, and while I'm regrettably not well-versed in the latter, it does seem to share his rather pessimistic (some might prefer to say realistic) sensibilities.  This is a not an idealized picture of England but rather a harsh look into class differences, the lives of the very poor, and the utter disregard with which their lives were viewed by the upper classes. 

If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly that with a dark edge, I'd recommend this book to you.  I can't fault Holman's writing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gnocchi with Creamy Tomato Sauce

I don't like tomato sauce very much.  This doesn't seem to be a popular opinion.  I've tried several homemade recipes for marinara - long cooked, quick cooking, fresh tomatoes, canned - and none of them tasted any more appealing to me than a regular old jar of sauce.  So I make no apologies in buying jarred marinara for the times when I need such sauce.

So I don't like plain old marinara much.  However, add a few ingredients to it and it becomes magical.  I recently made my faux vodka sauce and it was as delicious as the first time I made it.

To make creamy tomato sauce, also know as faux vodka sauce, start by adding a cup of white wine and half a jar (about 2 cups) of basic pasta type sauce to a pan.  You could use homemade if you like, but I would stick with either marinara or tomato basil.  Turn it on medium - trust me that you don't want the heat too high.  Your kitchen will be covered in tomatoey spatters - and let it simmer for twenty to thirty minutes for the wine to reduce.   Here's my sauce bubbling away on the stove.

When the sauce smells less strongly of wine and has been simmering for a while, start boiling your pasta water.  You could serve this with any pasta, but I was drawn to Target's Archer Farms gnocchi one day and they were better than I expected.  Both me and Mr. Hungry really liked them.  This time the gnocchi are Pastene brand from Hannaford.  Both products were vacuum-sealed, shelf-stable, and cook very quickly.

Once the gnocchi has cooked and been drained, turn the heat off the sauce, pour about a cup of cream into your sauce, a few generous handfuls of Romano or Parmesan cheese (I prefer the former), and stir it around.  Add the gnocchi to the pot with the sauce, mix it all, and serve.   Unfortunately, I ddin't have cream,  but I did have some half-and-half to use it up.  It wasn't really rich enough and sort of broke (or maybe curdled?) in the tomato sauce.  It tasted fine, but heavy cream is much  better.

I had some nice broccoli...

that I cut into florets and tossed into the boiling water for a few minutes with the gnocchi.

I seem unable to determine the proper amount of sauce for a pound of gnocchi and added far too much to this batch, but I used a slotted spoon to get rid of the excess and it came out just fine.  I make no claims that this is gourmet food, and it's barely even homemade, but it is delicious, fairly nutritious (the gnocchi I bought has a good deal of fiber!), and pretty inexpensive.  Here's how it looked before we ate:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Slow Cooker Honey-Orange Chicken Drumsticks

It's been hot here in Albany.  Seriously, sweat-drippingly hot.  I can scarcely stand to think about cooking.  Days like yesterday make me very glad to have a slow cooker.

Dinner last night was honey-orange drumsticks, loosely based on a recipe from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook.  I say loosely because of the five ingredients called for, I only had the two major ones.  I left out the instant tapioca, used for thickening, and substituted garlic for shallots.  I didn't have a can of roasted green chiles but intended to add a dash of hot sauce.  I forgot.

I decided to strip the skin off the legs because chicken skin tends to get flabby and unappealing in the slow cooker thanks to the wet nature of this cooking method.  This was the most labor-intensive part of the meal.  I whisked half a can of orange juice concentrate (thawed from frozen) with ¼ cup of honey and added some salt and pepper.  The legs were placed on top, tossed around to coat, and the slow cooker was placed on high for a few hours.

Due to the method of cooking, my drumsticks were looking sad and anemic as they cooked.  Mr. Hungry thought they smelled rather like meatballs cooking and was surprised to find chicken on the menu.  I attribute this to the garlic.  Here they are in the crock after cooking for about three hours:

To accompany them I attempted to make brown rice. The smell of brown basmati rice cooking is so deliciously fragrant – it reminds me of popcorn.  Unfortunately, despite cooking the rice exactly to the package directions, plus extra cooking time, the rice never softened.  So we didn’t eat it.  It made the house smell good, so all was not lost. 

Good thing I’d planned on serving a big salad.  Here’s one of our favorite simple combinations.  It’s certainly nothing innovative, but the sweet, tangy strawberries go so well with the roasty, toasted pecans.  I scored the locally-grown cucumber at Hannaford for a mere $0.89!  Hooray for summer!

Here’s dinner on my plate before salad.  I hadn’t realize the rice was underdone and put it on my plate only to discover it was inedible.  If anyone has tips about making brown rice actually cook when you cook it, please let me know!

All in all this was just an average dinner.  Despite the long cooking time the chicken didn’t absorb much flavor.  It probably would have been better had I thickened the sauce as it would have clung to the drumsticks.  It was nothing fancy, but it was good enough for a very hot weeknight, and sometimes good enough is enough.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

First Post

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time, but strangely enough what was always holding me back was the name.  I couldn't think of what to call the thing.  During a bout of insomnia last night I decided to forgo anything clever or cute and keep it really simple: food & books.

I am terrible at both remembering to take pictures and uploading them from camera to computer, but I will try to start being more of a photographer, for blog's sake.  I hope this blog will find a reader or two.