Sunday, November 29, 2009

With a Capital "T"

I will be honest with you: I am having a hard time. I try not to show it, but I know it's clear to those who know me well, particularly my parents and husband. I hardly know what to do with myself. Troubles with work persist, and I am home all day every day.

And for all that I whined while I was working that I never had time to keep my house clean, I have certainly squandered my time at home of late. This makes me doubly ashamed because now I know that it isn't my schedule that keeps me from being a good housekeeper. I'm just a slob.

Adding to my worries about my job, I have problems with my teeth. It hardly motivates one to cook when one cannot chew. I've limited myself to soft foods, mostly pasta and potato dishes, cutting out anything that requires the use of ones molars. Every night when dinner comes around I virtually cringe at the thought of yet another meal without fully functioning teeth.

One consolation in all this is that it is now my favorite time of the rolling year - when we lift our thoughts to more important things: faith, love, family. I have loved decorating this year, as it has taken my mind off of all the things that are weighing heavily on my thoughts.

Every year, my mother-in-law's family does a "Pie Night". Each family brings a pie (or other treat) to share, and we gather to eat and enjoy one another's company. That's where we're headed tonight.

Since I haven't had my usual zeal for cooking, I thought I would limit this years contribution to some cookies. I made these for the first time last year, and they are wonderful! I love their spiciness, mingled with that sparkle of sugar on the outside. They stay soft for a few days, if they last that long...

Big Soft Ginger Cookies

2 1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ginger
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. margarine (Yes, margarine. This will probably be the only time I recommend that you not use butter)
1 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 Tbsp. orange juice (or water)
1/4 c. molasses
extra white sugar for rolling

In a medium bowl, mix or sift together dry ingredients and set aside.
In a separate bowl, cream together margarine and sugar. Beat in egg, then orange juice (or water) and molasses. Gradually stir in dry ingredients.
Let mixture refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (I usually refrigerate overnight.)
When chilled, form into walnut-sized balls (1 - 1 1/2" balls) and roll in extra white sugar to coat. (I use a cookie scoop and drop dough directly into sugar - the dough is very sticky.) Place on ungreased cookie sheets and bake at 350 for 8 - 10 minutes.
Let cool on pan for 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Copycat: Noodles & Co. Mac and Cheese

**Update: I finally took the time to get a decent photo of this and rework the sauce recipe. Hopefully it will now yield even better results. I also think that the sauce-to-pasta ratio is right on, where before the recipe made too much sauce. Enjoy!

I love Noodles & Co. I think I've had most everything on the menu, and of everything I've tried there's only been one thing I didn't particularly like.

One of my favorite things they make is their macaroni and cheese. It's comforting, but not too heavy like some versions out there.

Here's my stab at a copycat recipe. I think it comes pretty darn close. Plus, it's super easy and quick. Bonus!

Noodles & Co - esque Mac and Cheese

1 lb. elbow noodles
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 1/2 c.  milk (we use 2% because that's what we always have around)
1 1/2 to 2 c. shredded cheddar jack cheese blend
1/4 c. cream
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

In large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour making a roux. Stir in a pinch of salt and some pepper. Let the roux cook for a minute, then add the milk, whisking until just barely thickened -- it should thinly coat the back of a spoon. You want it thinner because it will thicken as it cools, and it will thicken when you add your cheese, and if you're going for authenticity, the original is pretty loose. You could even use less cheese than listed and/or be prepared to add more milk if it tightens up too much. Remove from heat. Add cheese and cream, stirring until cheese melts. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

To serve it up, ladle some sauce into your dish, followed by pasta and top with extra cheese. I love mixing it up myself! Enjoy!

What do you think? Does it stack up to the real deal?
Leave a comment!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Local Flavor: Park Cafe

I don't like to blog about my troubles too much because I like to keep this a happy space. But when my troubles lead me to a local restaurant that has me dreaming about coming back, I have to share.

My coworkers and I are sharing the misfortune of not being allowed to go into work. This has been the case on and off (but mostly on...) since the first of October. It's been a real trial to me.

My job supports our little family so my husband can focus on finishing school without the added pressure of providing at the same time. While the financial situation has been a challenge, one of the hardest things about being away from work has been missing the association with my coworkers. I don't think anyone has ever had such great friends at work as I have. They make it fun to come into work every day. (Every day we're allowed to come to work that is...)

Because we missed each other, and frankly have nothing else to do but wallow in our troubles, we decided to get together for breakfast to commiserate. We chose the Park Cafe.

It is positioned happily across 1300 South from Liberty Park, and has a lovely patio that can be enjoyed in the warmer months. I have a friend who lives right across the street from this place, and every time I've looked there have been crowds there. It's a local favorite, and it's not difficult to see why once you've been there.

The owners used to run Over the Counter in Milcreek -- in high school this was the hot spot for seminary-ditchers to grab a delicious breakfast -- and they've brought the secrets that kept people coming back for more along with them. The dining room is bright and clean and there's fun art on the wall. It's unpretentious without being a hole in the wall.

I ordered the French Toast Foolishness (there's something about that name that compells you to order it, you know?), which rang in at $6.50 or so and came with enough food to feed two people with generous portions: two HUGE pieces of french toast, accompanied by two eggs, two slices of bacon (slices three times the size of your standard slice) crisped to perfection, and "park potatoes".

On top of the massive portions, the service is fantastic! Attentive and friendly servers made sure that our cups were full at all times, and our party of 7 -- who didn't call ahead, by the way -- was seated and fed swiftly to our complete satisfaction.

If I can make one recommendation it would be to GO HERE! Sure, the parking lot holds all of three vehicles, and the Liberty Park area is pretty busy. Park on the street and walk over. You won't be disappointed!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thanks for the Memories

Oh I have neglected this little online outpost of mine! I have no excuse, so I offer none, but I do offer profoundest apologies if you missed me.

I'm sure the [two] people who read this blog with any frequency are probably expecting some sort of Thanksgiving offering from me. All I can say is, tough. I got nothin'. This is due largely to the fact that I will not be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a number of years yet. If we're with Preston's family, my mother in law will cook, if we're with my family, my mother or grandmother will cook.

I confess myself a little saddened by this thought. I love to cook, and the Thanksgiving feast is a cook's pride and joy! Looking down the road I see that when Grandma no longer hosts Thanksgiving (perish the thought!), my mom will take over, and only after that will I really get to test my Thanksgiving mettle. But while I get to take the backseat, I'm delighted to be surrounded by such wonderful cooks! Grandma's gravy is legendary, and my Mom is always shaking things up in fun and unexpected ways.

This is my first Thanksgiving away from my own family, as we will be with my husband's family this year. I had been dreading it -- tradition is so entrenched in my little soul, and giving up the holiday with my parents and brother feels heavily like a betrayal -- but times, they are a-changing. My brother is heading to Baltimore to be with his girlfriend, and as a grown-up girl, I know that spending every holiday with my family would hurt my husband terribly. And I want to have good memories with Preston's family. We made great strides last weekend, when I undertook the adventure of riding all together to a wedding in Denver with Preston's parents, two siblings plus spouses, two unruly young boys and two babies in a fifteen passenger van. Now I feel so much more at home with my "new" family. (Doesn't sound like much fun, but I had a blast!)

I may be asked to bring a side or some-such to the upcoming festivities, and I will do my best to deliver something super-amazing. (If not a side, then perhaps a dessert -- check out this recipe for the perfect pumpkin pie.) Maybe this Potato-Fennel Gratin that I'm DYING to try.

I don't love fennel seed as a spice, but the bulb has a lovely light flavor and texture that would lend a freshness to your standard potato gratin. Sounds amazing, no?

Potato-Fennel Gratin
from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

2 small fennel bulbs
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 pounds russet potatoes (4 large potatoes)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 1/2 cups grated Gruyère cheese (1/2 pound)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350.
Grease a 10x15" baking dish.
Remove the stalks from the fennel and cut the bulbs in half lengthwise. Remove the cores and thinly slice the bulbs crosswise, making approximately 4 cups of sliced fennel. Saute the fennel and onions in the olive oil and butter on medium-low heat for 15 minutes, until tender.
Peel the potatoes, then thinly slice them (by hand or with a mandoline). Mix the sliced potatoes in a large bowl with 2 cups of cream, 2 cups of Gruyère, salt, and pepper. Add the sauteed fennel and onion and mix well.
Pour the potatoes into the baking dish. Press down to smooth the potatoes. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream and 1/2 cup of Gruyère and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, until the potatoes are very tender and the top is browned and bubbly. Allow to set for 10 minutes and serve.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Not Exactly Health Food

In a fit of ambition, I made the unilateral decision that we would be eating butternut squash ravioli, and nothing could dissuade me. I dutifully tracked down a recipe that looked reliable and did my homework to the best of my ability.

Throwing caution (and my resolve to eat more carefully) to the wind for the evening, I dove into the fray -- and I'm so glad I did! 

I could not believe I had made these! They are, I grant you, a LOT of work, but I feel so accomplished now. It's not the healthiest dish, but it's so rich you don't need a plateful to feel satisfied.
I'm not sure how I pieced together the restraint to keep myself from eating the filling straight out of the pan with a spoon, but I did somehow. {The filling was so fantastic, in fact, I feel it's a little wasted only on ravioli. A fuzzy concept forms in my little head of some sort of butternut squash lasagna. More to come if I decide to make this a reality.}

The brown butter and sage sauce wasn't anything special, but it didn't overpower the filling, and the sage was so delightfully crispy!

Give this recipe a try if you're feeling daring. It was fabulous! (And in case you're wondering, yes, I did take this particular picture myself. Don't let that deter you. It will be delicious, and it will be pretty. Promise!)

Butternut Squash Mezzaluna Ravioli
in Sage Brown Butter
recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse (find the original here)

9 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. minced shallots
1 c. roasted butternut squash puree
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp heavy cream
3 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
pinch nutmeg
wonton wrappers (3” rounds) {you can also use fresh pasta of your own (or even someone else's) making, but I'm a lazy bum, and pretty intimidated by making fresh pasta. Someday...}
1 egg, beaten
6 - 12 fresh sage leaves
1 amaretto cookie, finely crushed

Melt 1 Tbsp butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and sautee one or two minutes until tender. Stir in squash puree and cook 2 - 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper, then stir in cream. Cook 2 minutes more, then remove from heat. Stir in parmesan and nutmeg.

Now start assembling the ravioli: Dip your fingers in the beaten egg and run it around the edge of the wonton wrapper a little more than halfway. Place about a teaspoon of the squash filling in the center and fold the wrapper gently in half to seal. Start with the outer edges and work your way up, being careful to squeeze out any excess air, but not squeeze out the filling. (It might take you a few tries, but you can do it. Find a method that works for you.) Set aside and repeat until all the filling is used -- I had about 30 ravioli.

Cook the ravioli in simmering water about 2 minutes, or until they float to the top and are light in color. Drain and set aside.

In a large pan, melt the remaining 8 Tbsp. of butter over medium heat.  Drop in sage leaves and let cook until butter begins to brown. Remove from heat and serve over the ravioli. Sprinkle lightly with crushed amaretto cookie.

To make your own butternut squash puree, follow these simple steps:
1. Heat oven to 350
2. Split squash in half lengthwise and scoop out pulp and seeds.
3. Lightly sprinkle with salt and thyme
4. Place on greased baking sheet and cover with foil (you can also line the pan with foil if you want, but I think that's a waste).
5. Put in oven and let roast for 40 minutes or so, until squash is fork-tender
6. Let cool.
7. Gently scoop the flesh of the squash out of the skin and place in blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

**Note: my blender didn't do so well with this, so I'm thinking a food processor would work best. You can also use a mixer to mash the lumps out of the squash.