Sunday, May 27, 2012

Step 13: Air Conditioning, cinnamon bread

My friends, yesterday was hot.

I don't mean that in the colloquial sense, I literally mean it was 90 degrees in our apartment and I refused to blow dry my hair. I wore a dress not because it was an occasion which required it, but because I don't own a pair of shorts. I was excited for work not only because I enjoy my job, but because the YMCA is air conditioned.

Just a few days ago, I remember thinking to myself that we should hold out, that we should attempt to make it through the summer without buying window units, because we're moving in September, and our new housing is (so far as we know) air conditioned. That it would be silly to buy something that we would only use for three months, and that instead, we should spend our money on, you know, something permanent. That we lasted a good two months of hot weather in this apartment when we moved here in August, and it was just fine thankyouverymuch and we are capable of suffering through this time.

I was wrong. Oh man, I was wrong.

Perhaps it's because my family always kept the house at a cool low-60-some degrees from late spring to mid fall. Perhaps it's because the humidity on the first hot day here was so high that I felt like my pillow had a layer of damp on it when I laid down. Perhaps it's because I absolutely refuse to turn on the oven when the house is that warm. Perhaps it's because I'm a wimp. (I'm thinking it's all of the above, but mostly the last one).

J. and I bit the bullet, and used jar money (the money we refuse to admit to ourselves that we have until a. air conditioning is needed, b. emergencies, or c. vacation) to buy two window units, and I am more thankful than I have ever been in my life that J. and I are equally stubborn when it comes to being uncomfortable in our own home. It should also be noted that J. installed both units, for which I am eternally grateful.

Because of the aforementioned air conditioning, I have a slightly unseasonal recipe to post today. For some inexplicable reason, I was craving cinnamon bread. I've been thinking about it for days. The spiced swirl, the soft, chewy interior, the just slightly crispy crust. Eating it by unfurling it like a cinnamon roll, rather than a piece of bread. Completely good on its own, no need for any topping. I simply couldn't help myself.

It's worth it, even in 90 degree weather. I would have considered making it even without the air conditioning.

Cinnamon Swirl Bread
Lightly adapted from the Pioneer Woman

For the bread
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter/margarine
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 whole eggs
⅓ cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt

For the swirl
Scant 1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon

For the top
egg and milk, mixed together, for brushing

Melt butter/margarine with milk. Heat until very warm, make sure not to boil. Allow to cool slightly. Sprinkle yeast over the top, stir gently, and allow to sit for 10 minutes.

Combine flours and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix sugar and eggs with the paddle attachment until combined. Pour in milk/butter/yeast mixture and mix to combine. Add half the flour mixture and beat on medium speed until combined. Add the other half and beat until combined.

Switch to the dough hook attachment and beat/knead dough on medium speed for ten minutes. The dough should come together in a ball around the hook. If dough is overly sticky, add 1/4 cup flour and beat again for 5 minutes.

Heat a metal or glass mixing bowl so it’s warm. Drizzle in a little canola oil, then toss the dough in the oil to coat. Cover bowl in plastic wrap (I didn't have any, I used a towel and it worked just fine) and let rise for at least 2 hours.

Turn dough out onto the work surface. Roll into a  rectangle no wider than the loaf pan you’re going to use, and about 18 to 24 inches long. Smear with 2 tablespoons melted butter. Mix sugars and cinnamon together, then sprinkle evenly over the butter-smeared dough. Starting at the far end, roll dough toward you, keeping it tight and contained. Pinch seam to seal.

Smear loaf pan with softened butter. Place dough, seam down, in the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 2 hours.

NOTE: I skipped this. I was hungry and impatient. The bread turned out just fine. At some point I'll try it again with the second rise, but if you, like me, are feeding both a craving and a boyfriend, it's acceptable to skip it. 

Preheat oven to 350°.

Mix a little egg with milk, and smear over the top. Bake for 40 minutes on a middle/lower rack in the oven.

Allow to cool for 15 minutes (I did 5 in the pan, and then turned it out onto a cooling rack for 10. The fact that it lasted that long before I cut into it is a miracle, due to the previously indicated hunger and boyfriend. Just saying.)

Slice. Consume. Enjoy. Repeat.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Step Twelve: Birthdays and Bruschetta

As of yesterday, I am 24.

It's been a nice birthday. It was well timed to be just after an alumni event for the theatre department at my alma mater, so I was able to see friends and family, and it just so happened to fall on a day when my only class was to go fight choreograph a show. J. gave me very thoughtful, personal gifts, and brought home this absolutely stunning orchid, followed by incredibly vibrantly cheerfully yellow sunflowers, and absolutely divine smelling lilac.

For my birthday dinner, we drove down to Newport and ate at one of our favorite restaurants. My lobster mac and cheese was good, but I have to say, all of the food was utterly forgettable when compared to the bruschetta.

I don't like raw tomatoes. I make an exception for bruschetta.

This particular bruschetta had a perfectly seasoned batch of tomatoes, on top of the kind of bread that is both wonderfully crispy and still soft and chewable, fresh basil, melty and creamy and delicious fresh mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar.

Oh Lord, the balsamic vinegar.

This wasn't just a drizzle. It was a separate bowl. Of balsamic reduction. Clearly high quality balsamic vinegar that was reduced to the consistency of the most luscious, smooth, thick syrup in the history of ever.

Yes, I said it, and I meant it. The history of ever.

J. and I couldn't stop just dipping our fingers in it just so we could keep that incredible taste on our tongue as we waited for our entrees. We agreed, that particular reduction would make cardboard taste gourmet. I've been known to make inappropriately excited noises about ice cream (okay, about Jeni's ice cream) but never for anything like this. My god, I'm still drooling now. I legitimately dreamt about it that night.

So it's no surprise that I attempted to make my own at home. I must say, I had a near perfect replica in all but the reduction. The first attempt I let it reduce so much that I now have a bowl of balsamic caramel sitting on my counter. Tasty, sure, but not right for bruschetta. And it sticks to my teeth in a way I find unpleasant. The second attempt came much closer, I think had I left it on the stove for another 3-5 minutes it would have been perfect.

And so, I give you my version of the Brick Alley Pub's Tuscan Bruschetta

Makes 8-10 slices depending on how much of the tomato mixture is used per.  

For the Tomato Mixture
2 Cloves Garlic, crushed
1 Tomato, seeded
2-3 teaspoons grated pecorino romano cheese
1 tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Several tablespoons shredded basil, to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine, stir, let chill in the fridge for 2 hours so that all of the flavors can meld and turn into something entirely out of this world. Drain off excess liquid before serving.

Put good balsamic vinegar in a pan. Let reduce until clearly thickened, coating the back of a spoon, about the consistency of a thin syrup. This will continue to thicken as it cools. Let cool before serving. 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice french bread into one to one-and-a-half inch slices, cut diagonally. Melt enough butter/olive oil in a skillet to coat both sides of the bread. Cook till golden brown. Top with slices of fresh mozzarella. Bake for 3-5 minutes, until cheese is melted and is beginning to show signs of pizza like browning.

Top the cheese bread with 1-2 tablespoons of the tomato mixture. Drizzle with the balsamic reduction. Make inappropriate noises and think of me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Step Eleven: Long hiatus, production weeks, and quitting your job

So, I've been a terrible blogger.

My last two months, in review, and then the fun stuff:
Early January: Came back from Ohio, launched into rehearsals for the show I was in, as well as the two shows I was directing, and the show for which I was assistant directing.
Mid January: Show I was in went up, left my job
End of January: Show I was in concluded
First week of February: Show number one I directed
Second week of February: Show number two I directed
Third week of February: Show number three, which I assistant directed

Whew! Five production weeks, four different shows, in three different cities, and two different states.

I... am exhausted. Thoroughly. If I ever try to do this again, someone smack me, alright? Seriously...

Now, in that time frame, some very important things happened. One, I learned never to do this to myself again. Two, J. built us a headboard and we bought a couch. Three, I celebrated an anniversary. Four, I learned how to leave a job.

This last one may sound trivial, but as someone who has never, ever before done anything like that, it was a pretty huge experience, and it was a necessary one. I miss my students, and I felt like a terrible person leaving them behind, but for my finances, and my sanity, it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Though I've only ever done this once, a word of advice: Stand your ground. Know that this decision is the right one, and go in there with that conviction. It also helps to have other jobs lined up. Which I did.

Now onto the fun stuff.

Thoroughly Modern Millie went up with only minor challenges. The performances were incredible, the students had a great experience, and I was absurdly proud of all of them. We will, however, be scheduling next year's "fall" musical actually in the fall... This time of year there are too many illnesses going around, I had one of my Priscilla girls get pneumonia during tech week and we had to replace her, and another of my Priscilla girls got a nasty flu between the final dress on Saturday morning and the performance on Saturday night.

I know, right?

Guys and Dolls goes up this weekend, which is exciting. And even more exciting (in some ways) are the additions to our humble apartment. J., built us a beautiful headboard out of an old five panel door, and we bought our first big piece of "grown up" furniture, in our lovely new couch. We're finally able to upgrade from futon to full couch, which has been a blessing, and our apartment is finally beginning to look like a home, and not one lived in by poor college students. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with college student living, or post college student still poor living, but we were getting some serious apartment envy from my former roommates, including one Mrs. Bean.

I've had little opportunity to cook. We've been doing a lot of quick, easy, repetitive meals. That being said, I would go absolutely bonkers without the opportunity to at least occasionally set aside for a good meal, and the perfect timing came when J.'s parents came to Providence to visit.

They just so happened to give us a pasta machine for Christmas, and we thought their visit was the perfect opportunity to make homemade fettuccine with vodka sauce, which, if I do say so myself, was an excellent choice.

This is, quite possibly, the simplest, cheapest recipe for homemade noodles ever. We took it and adapted it not one bit from our favorite new cookbook, The New Best Recipe. While some homemade pasta recipes call for the nest of flour and beating the eggs in a little at time, this uses a food processor, making this recipe appropriate for even the most chaotic of evenings.

Fresh Egg Pasta
Makes about One Pound

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, beaten

1. Pulse the flour in a food processor fitted with a steel blade to distribute and aerate. Add the eggs, and process until the dough forms a rough ball, approximately 30 seconds. If the dough resembles small pebbles, add water half of a teaspoon at a time,  if the dough sticks to the sides of the work bowl, add flour a tablespoon at a time, and process until a rough ball is formed.

2. Turn the dough ball and small bits out onto a work surface. Knead the dough until smooth, one to two minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at least 15 minutes, or up until 2 hours. The dough can also be wrapped well in plastic wrap and kept refrigerated up to one day before rolling out.

3. Using a manual pasta machine, roll the dough.

4. Let dry for a bit. Cook until done, not more than a few minutes.

(Yes, I know that's a horrible direction "Cook until done" but it really varies, and seriously, cooks up fast. Check it at two minutes, use your own discretion.)

If you are making more than one batch, this can be time consuming. When we cooked for 18 people at Christmas, this process took the entire afternoon, but that was for five batches of pasta. For a one pound batch, I would set aside 30-45 minutes, depending on how practiced you are with the pasta machine.

Also, beware running out of space on your drying rack. Like we did. Quite a bit.

The cut pasta can also be laid out upon and separated by layers of paper towel. If you have some in the house. Which we didn't.


Light(er) Vodka Cream Sauce
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup vodka
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil (or more to taste. Basil is my favorite, so I like it with quite a bit)

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion to pan; saute until tender. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper, and garlic; saute 1 minute. Add vodka; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about half. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, broth, and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes. Stir in cream. Cook 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in cooked pasta and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Serve garnished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and sliced fresh basil.

Consume and think of me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Step Ten: Family Traditions, DIY Gifts for When Your Finances Suck

My family is weird.

Now, I know we all think that of our families. We have these quirks that set every single family across the world apart, whether it's a tradition for Christmas that makes you roll your eyes and sigh when you're a teenager, or a weekly ritual featuring awful dance moves from your Dad, or a crazy Uncle story at every reunion. In my family, we sing. Not just Christmas carols, but showtunes in the summertime. We have a beautiful arrangement of prayers that my Dad set to music (three part harmony no less) that we sing before meals when we're together as a whole family. We have an UNO tournament every year. In my immediate family, we cut down our own tree each Christmas, and eat Cracker Barrel on the way home. We watch both the Patrick Stewart and the George C. Scott versions of A Christmas Carol. J. and I watch every Christmas episode of our favorite television shows over the course of the season. My mom collects nativities, and sets aside all of the little Baby Jesus-es and on Christmas morning, we put them back in thei respective mangers.

But I think the tradition which most sets apart my family from others is our Thanksgiving candy-making. My Mom has this to say on the subject: In 1932, Carolyn Morgan Guion attempted to make chocolate candies. She was less than impressed with the results. The chocolates were all gray and not really very tasty. Determined to figure it out, Carrie responded to an ad for a chocolate dipper so that she could learn how to do it properly. She told the owner of the Nut House (aptly named), that she didn't have any experience, but that she was a fast learner. This turned out to be very true! Not long after this, Carrie and her husband, Roy, and their eight year old son Robert, began to make great quantities of candy to sell to earn some extra money during the Great Depression. After the depression ended, Carrie and Roy (and most definitely Robert) swore off selling candy, and began to make it only to give away as gifts. Robert grew up and married Emily in 1947. In about 1958 they decided to start making candy, too (though the beginning was pretty rough!). Robert and Emily's five kids, including their youngest Judy, and her husband Eric and their children, Wesley (12), Emily (19) and Heather and her partner, J., have continued and built upon the traditions, so that we are now "Four Generations in Chocolate."

What this means for us as a family is that each Thanksgiving, much of the Guion Family packs into my Grandparent's house, and spends the week making what this year was 200+ pounds of homemade, hand dipped chocolates. If you combine our total with that of the two family units unable to make it for Thanksgiving, it would top 300 pounds. We make over 20 varieties of fudges, caramels, cremes, truffles, and toffees to share with our coworkers, friends, and in-laws.

You know how everyone talks about Black Friday? I can honestly say that I've never even so much as been out of the house on Black Friday, I spend it up to my elbows in melted chocolate. And I wouldn't have it any other way. And so today, I'm going to share with you one of our recipes, complete with dipping tutorial. If you, like me and so many other twenty-somethings, are strapped for cash this holiday season, this makes a lovely, heartfelt, personal gift.

Chocolate Fudge
2.5 Pound Batch

Equipment needed:
A good candy thermometer
A heavy bottomed saucepan

Something on which to work the fudge, preferably a marble slab (if dipping)
If using marble slab, something with which to contain the fudge before working (see pictures below)
A cookie sheet
Wax Paper

2 Pounds Sugar
5 Tablespoons Cocoa
5 Tablespoons Karo
3/4 Cups Milk (Do not use cream)
1/4 Pound Butter (plus a little)
1/2 Teaspoon Sucrovert (If dipping the candy)
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Stir all ingredients except butter together until well mixed, continue stirring until mixture begins to boil. STOP STIRRING. DO NOT TOUCH THAT SPOON TO THAT MIXTURE, NO SIR, DON'T DO IT. If  you do, it will get grainy, and no one wants to eat grainy fudge. Cook until the mixture hits 238 degrees. 

Pour onto marble slab spread with the 1/4 pound (plus a little) of butter, or pour into a shallow pan. 

Let it cool a bit, and add sucrovert (for dipped candy) and vanilla. Work it with a spatula (if on marble slab) or begin to beat it with a wooden spoon (if in shallow pan) until it stiffens, and begins to lose its gloss. At this time, it can be spread into a pan to be given away if you are not dipping it. If you are dipping it, roll it into bite sized pieces and place the balls on a tray covered with wax paper. 

Sucrovert is the ingredient which turns sugar from a solid into a liquid, making for beautifully creamy candy once dipped. It takes a few days to kick in, and doesn't affect the flavor of the fudge at all. 

Having an accurate candy thermometer is key. This year, in the Guion Clan Candy Kitchen, our thermometer went a little crazy, and in the course of one day went from being one degree off, to ten degrees off. This does not make fudge. This, if it is showing to be ten degrees higher than the actual temperature, makes ice cream topping. If it is claiming to be ten degrees lower than the actual temperature of the mixture, makes some odd not-quite-fudge-not-quite-taffy mixture which we have determined to be "Faffy" and is not entirely edible, and certainly not worth dipping. Please see illustrations below.

Dipping Tutorial

There is no singular way to dip chocolates. Over time, each dipper in my family has established their own methods, their own ways of picking up the candy, covering it in chocolate, putting it down. We use different fingers to make the signs on top, place the completed candy in different places on the wax-covered sheets, and even make nests in our chocolate in a multitude of ways. So what I will outline below is just my method, you'll have to establish your own over time!

First, and this may sound weird, make sure the room in which you are dipping is no warmer than 70 degrees, and preferably no cooler than 65. The chocolate starts acting weird if you go outside of those parameters. Butter a cookie sheet, and have a tray with wax paper ready on which to place the completed candy. Ladle melted chocolate onto the sheet, and work the chocolate with your primary hand until it has cooled, not so much that it is beginning to harden, but enough that it doesn't feel warm to the touch any more. This is done in order to ensure that the chocolate doesn't speckle or bloom, because while it doesn't taste any different, grey, streaky chocolate doesn't look terribly appetizing. If you're not sure, streak the wax paper with a swipe of plain chocolate and see if it cools without turning any strange colors. 

When it is cooled, pick up a piece undipped fudge with the non-chocolate-working hand. Place it in the chocolate, and pick it up in your chocolate hand and roll it around in your fingers, making sure it is coated all the way around. Set it gently down on the wax paper sheet, taking care to keep extra chocolate in your hand and not on the piece, and if you are making a sign on top, do so. If not, try to take the excess chocolate and swing it around the piece so there are no globs, and it's as smooth as possible. 

If this is your first time dipping, it may not go perfectly. It may not even go well. The chocolate may leak, it may speckle, it may look absolutely weird. Keep at it! It takes a long time to perfect, and even in our family where we begin dipping from practically birth we have days where the chocolate just doesn't do what we want it to do

Allow to cool and harden. Consume and enjoy. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Step Nine: Car repairs, Quick cheap meals, Quick impressive meals

There comes a point in many a twenty-something's life when he or she realizes that cars suck.

When we were 14 and just approaching the point of driving we imagined the freedom, the ability to go anywhere and to do anything. When we first got our licenses, and perhaps drove a vehicle belonging to someone else, therefore sharing costs, a sense of adulthood began to settle over us. While in college, cars may have represented long, late night adventures with friends, and shoving too many people in without seatbelts.

And then we moved away from home. Bought our own cars, paid for our own gas, had to keep up with oil changes sans reminders from a parent... and eventually, yes for all of us, eventually we had to deal with a breakdown. A tow. A replacement part. An expensive repair. Always, always at the worst possible moment. Never during an off week, or a time we can call in sick, always during our busiest moment.

It's like they know.

This past week was just that moment in the Pseudoadulthood home. J. was in the midst of production week and weekend, and his car decided it no longer wanted to start. A jump didn't work, switching out the battery with mine didn't work (and now mine makes a beeping noise when I turn it off...) and hitting the starter with tiny hammers (which is apparently a thing?) didn't work. After a week of driving J. into work in the morning, we were finally able to find enough time in our schedules to get his car towed, due at least in part to the kindness of his coworkers, generous enough to let us use their AAA, and it is now back, and working, parked snugly in our driveway.

Between paychecks and right as bills are due, of course.

During this debacle, we ate a lot of meals at the school, but as our bodies are not accustomed to eating at 5:30 in the afternoon, and are instead used to our ridiculous schedule of eating at around 8:00, we often resorted to second dinners. Because we're hobbits, apparently. And also, incidentally, is part of the reason I'm convinced I'll never get a decent picture of my cooking, as there is no daylight at 8:00 at night. Or even at 5:30, this time of year.

My absolute favorite, freakishly simple four ingredient pasta sauce is a lifesaver. Not only does it come together quickly, but it's amazingly delicious, meaty without any meat in the sauce, hearty but not overwhelming, and perfect paired with pasta or chicken or ravioli, our food of choice this week. We even used it as pizza sauce one night, and it worked just perfectly.

Four Ingredient Pasta Sauce
Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

One large (28 ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
One onion, halved
5 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, lightly smashed

Put all of the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil at medium heat, then turn heat to low. Simmer for 45 minutes. Eat with whatever sounds good.

If you're like me, and believe that onions are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, the onions, by the end of this process, are delicious on bread, or even just with a fork straight out of the pot. If, like J., you believe that onions are inedible (and don't ask me why, because I don't understand) they don't add any perceptible or strong "onion" taste to this sauce, and it's still delicious on it's own.

Sometimes, though, I crave foods that look nice. I, apparently, harbor a secret (or now not so secret) desire to cook like a chef, and to present food that is nice to look at, as well as to eat. More photogenic food. And as I used to joke that if I opened a restaurant it would have to be called "Uglifood" due to the fact that my meals seem to taste great, even while looking like slop on a plate. So when I saw this recipe, I knew I had to make an attempt.

It was a good choice.

No, I mean it. It was a really, really good choice. As in, go buy these ingredients and make this chicken right now. Or at your earliest possible convenience, at least.

This is delicious. The marinade turns into this sort of glazy sauce, making the potatoes have this buttery mouthfeel with no butter in the recipe. The lemon is light and adds this huge punch of flavor without being overpowering, the combination of lemon with the amazing floral notes of rosemary and the hint of garlic is probably the greatest combination ever. By tomorrow I'll probably think that an exaggeration, but right now I'm still wandering into the kitchen every few minutes to grab a forkfull of potato and shallot out of the pan, and the taste is divine, and I can't imagine anything being better in the entire world. Except maybe the mushrooms, which melt in your mouth and take on a whole new dimension due to the aforementioned glaze-sauce-thing.

I did say to go get the ingredients now, right?

Rosemary Skillet Chicken
Lightly adapted from Minimally Invasive

3/4 pound small red-skinned potatoes, halved, or quartered if large
Kosher Salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus 1 1/2 tablespoons leaves
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Juice of 2 lemons (squeezed halves reserved)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts 
10 ounces mushrooms, halved
One shallot, quartered

Preheat the oven to 450. Cover the potatoes with cold water in a saucepan and salt the water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until tender, about 8 minutes; drain and set aside.

Pile the rosemary leaves, garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and the red pepper flakes on a cutting board, then mince and mash into a paste using a large knife. I have no decent knives, so instead I did my best, and then ran the whole thing through a food processor. A mortar and pestle would probably also do the trick. Transfer the paste to a bowl. Stir in the juice of 1 lemon and the olive oil. Add the chicken and turn to coat.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, skin-side down, cover and cook until the skin browns, about 5 minutes. Remove chicken from pan; add the mushrooms, shallot, and potatoes to the skillet, place chicken on top, and drizzle with any marinade remaining in the bowl and the juice of the remaining lemon. I have a not terribly well seasoned skillet (it's making it's way back, I swear) and worried briefly about potatoes sticking, which I hate. It did not happen, so no worries folks, go ahead and just put them in.

Add the rosemary sprigs and the squeezed lemon halves to the skillet; transfer to the oven and roast, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked through and the skin is crisp, 20 to 25 minutes, or longer if the pieces are absolutely gigantic, as ours were tonight. 

This would probably work equally well with boneless skinless (and I intend to do that next time we have this meal) with a few adjustments. I would go ahead and marinade the chicken in the garlic/rosemary/red pepper/olive oil/lemon juice mixture for 15-20 minutes, brown only very briefly, and check the roasting after 15 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.

My kitchen smells like rosemary and lemon, and it is glorious.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Step Eight: Cheap Dates and Comforting Desserts

J. and I have gotten the point in our relationship where date night typically consists of ordering in pizza or Chinese food, sitting on the sofa, drinking wine, and catching up on our Netflix instant cue. Romantic though this may be, every once and a great while we desire to do something that actually resembles a date. A real, live, leave the house wearing something nicer than sweatshirts, go somewhere where there are actually people, eat at something other than our coffee table in the living room date.

That being said, our budgets are understandably tight considering the recent travel, the setting up of our household, and the fact that I just started getting paychecks a few weeks ago. Dates, then, are either things we save for (like going to the Renaissance Festival) or need to be something inexpensive. In the last two weeks we've been fortunate enough to go on both kinds.

Our inexpensive date consisted of picking apples at a you-pick place nearby, and I have to say, this is one of my favorite things about fall. For $15, we picked a huge bag of apples in all sorts of varieties, some of which will become pies, some applesauce, some muffins and scones and cookies, and some will just get eaten, straight out of the bag, all crisp and sweet and tart and delicious. We also picked up a gallon of apple cider, which is always better from the local places. When I got home, I immediately poured it into my biggest stock pot and simmered it for an hour with my favorite blend of mulling spices. If you're going to make it a true cheap date, however, remembering the camera is probably a good idea. We didn't, and so you get to see the spoils, but not the picking itself.

Our other date was one we'd been anxiously anticipating since we moved to Rhode Island.

I've been going to the Ohio Renaissance Festival with my family for over a decade. To me, it is not fall unless I've consumed a turkey leg, watched the swordsmen, avoided dirt at the mudde show, and shopped the day away surrounded by friends and family, and so when we moved out East, it was my mission to find an acceptable substitute. The King Richard's Faire is the closest alternative, and so yesterday we set out for our grand date. While it was an enjoyable day, and certainly worth it this time, the decision has been made that next year, we will be trekking back to Ohio for a weekend in the fall, because it didn't measure up to the standard by which I hold all RenFests, our lovely site in little Harveysburg Ohio.

Ohioans, take advantage of what you have, for it is great.

That being said, the jousting tournament was wicked fun.

We made it through the faire in record time, and decided to head up to Plymouth while we were in the area. After a walk along the coast, we checked out Plymouth Rock, took a few pictures of the Mayflower II, bought saltwater taffy, and had dinner at a cute little Italian place.

It was a memorable date day, and an excellent way to spend a Sunday.

I have to admit, I think my very favorite thing about living in New England is the proximity to all of these touristy spots and great cities and towns. In just a quick (relatively) drive we can be in Cape Cod or Salem or Hartford or anywhere in between, and all of the history of the beginnings of our country is brought to life as we visit the landmarks where it all took place.

You should come and visit. We'll make it worth your while.

In the midst of all of this excitement, however, has been challenge. Trying to balance job(s) and home and personal time has been difficult, and I'm still getting used to everything out here, and I constantly feel that I'm falling behind. Worse, my grandfather fell and broke his hip, and not being able to just drive home to be there has been agonizing.

And so with that, I've sought comforting desserts. And while cakes, pies, and cookies are incredible ways to brighten a day, they take time and energy to bake. The simplest, most delicious, hearty, comforting dessert I could think of was rice pudding. This particular recipe is made with ingredients I almost always have on hand, and comes together with very little work, partially because you can use leftover rice. The night I made this, I just made a little more rice than needed for our dinner of fajitas. It's also easily made vegan, and would be incredible with almond milk. While it's great on its own, I will say it needs berries, something tart and bright to balance out the almost overly sweet pudding, and the almonds add a nice bit of texture.

Coconut Rice Pudding
From America's Test Kitchen: Cooking for Two

Any type of milk, or even half-and-half, will work in this recipe.

1 Cup Water
1/2 cup rice
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Sit in the rice and salt, cover, and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the water is almost fully absorbed, 10-15 minutes.

Stir in the coconut milk, milk, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon and continue to simmer, stirring frequently, until a spoon is able to stand up in the pudding, 45 to 55 minutes. Serve warm or chilled, with berries and toasted almonds, or extra coconut.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Step Seven: So many Weddings, so much Stroganoff.

There comes a time in many a 20-something's life when he or she realizes that an absurdly high number of his or her friends are getting married/engaged/having children. J and I recently added up the number of these friends and came up with no less than 35 couples we are acquainted with who have either gotten married in the last six months, or are getting married in the next year or so. And the number simply keeps rising.

You would think, then, that weddings would somehow lose their sparkle. That at a certain point we'd simply lose interest, stop being excited, groan when we receive "Save the Date" cards or roll our eyes when Facebook alerts us of another engagement. Perhaps we will, but that point has not yet arrived. Although the number of friends and acquaintances tying the knot is approaching astronomical numbers, it doesn't take much to make me squeal with glee when a friend calls with the happy news. I cannot speak for J., but I still get weepy during the vows, happily accept Bridesmaidsdom, and thoroughly enjoy wedding cake. And I still feel sad when we are unable to attend.

This weekend was the wedding of two of our very good friends, one of whom was my roommate in college (and always my roommate in my heart). It was one of the most beautiful ceremonies in which I have had the honor and privilege to take part. The bride was glowing, the groom clearly ecstatic, the wedding party supportive and thrilled to be there. As with any wedding there were mishaps and challenges -- a missing wedding ring, uncooperative (and cold!) weather, miscommunication resulting in friends being locked out of homes in the rain -- but at the end of the day, as the bride reminded all of us, none of it mattered because they walked away from the ceremony as husband and wife, as partners, and married.

We miss our friends in the midwest so very, very much. It was an amazing opportunity to see everyone, and honest to goodness, I will never, ever forget this wedding. AND I got to spend time with two of the most wonderful women I have ever met, my ever-roomies and my best friends.

There's another friend getting married this weekend, another acquaintance the weekend after that, and still another close couple the first weekend in November. We will be unable to make any of these weddings, and for that we grieve, knowing that we will be missing out on the ceremony that begins something magical and wonderful and challenging and hopeful and incredible and everything else you know a marriage will be.

When I got home, I craved foods that were my mother's specialties. She was the officiant at the wedding, and so while I had gotten to spend time with her, I had been unable to go and snatch food straight from the pan in our kitchen at home. Beef stroganoff is one of those foods that I begin to crave the minute it starts smelling like fall outside, and since it was 50 degrees when I left Ohio, I decided we could pull out the trusty crock pot and make a batch.

This particular recipe is excellent for many reasons. First, I'm gravitating toward crock pot meals at the moment due to a busy work schedule. It's great to be able to put something in while I'm home in the early afternoon and come home to dinner after a particularly exhausting Kindergarten class, without needing to come up with the energy to create something just then. Second, the flavors in this dish are incredible. Egg noodles give the dish a beautiful base, something heartier and homier than regular pasta. The sour cream makes the dish smooth and rich and a little tangy, with beef so tender it falls apart on your fork, perfectly cooked mushrooms, and an incredible depth from the red wine. Third, the measurements are all fairly loose and are really suggestions. This is a Mom recipe, so she was remembering approximately what she usually puts in, and it's easy to increase ingredients you love, decrease the ones you don't, and add whatever comes to mind. Fourth, the leftovers reheat really well. Finally, it comes together quickly and easily, and is (thank goodness) a one pot meal.

1 lb Top Steak
1 Onion
2 Large Cloves of Garlic
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 1/2 Cups Beef Broth
1 Tablespoon Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Dry Wine
1/4 lb Mushrooms
1/4 Cup Flour
Sour Cream (to taste -- I usually put in about 3/4 cup to start and then taste to see if it's enough)
Egg Noodles

Cut one pound of top steak into chunks. Salt and pepper the pieces. Add one onion, diced. Mix the minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth, and ketchup. Pour over meat and onions. Add wine and mushrooms. Cook on low heat for 6-8 hours. Turn off crock pot. Mix 1/4 cup of flour with some water, stir into mixture a bit at a time, continue stirring until thick. I didn't need the full amount in order for this to thicken to the desired consistency. Add sour cream to taste. Serve over egg noodles.

See how easy that one is?

I'm going to go grab a bowl of leftovers right now...